Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article about reputation management that I found surprisingly disturbing. Nick Bilton’s reporting of this social trend was excellent. People are coming face to face with their pasts in unwanted ways: pictures of ex-spouses upsetting new relationships, stupid things you did in your youth, abuse from trolls, etc. It’s a familiar story to anyone who’s used the web since its early days. We used to say “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (following the famous New Yorker cartoon), but it’s more correct to say that the Internet is like the proverbial elephant that never forgets. And, more often than not, it knows exactly what kind of a dog you are.
That’s old news. We live with it, and the discomfort it causes. What concerns me isn’t the problem of damaged reputations, or of reputation management, but of the techniques reputation consultancies are using to undo the damage. What Bilton describes is essentially search engine optimization (SEO), applied to the reputation problem. The tricks used range from the legitimate to distasteful. I don’t mind creating websites to propagate “good” images rather than bad ones, but creating lots of “dummy” sites that link to your approved content as a way of gaining PageRank is certainly “black hat” SEO. Not the worst black hat SEO, but certainly something I’m uncomfortable with. And I’m fairly confident that much more serious SEO abuses are taking place in the back room, all in the service of “reputation management.”
On Twitter, one of my followers (@mglauber) made the comment “Right to be forgotten?” I agree, there’s a “Right to Be Forgotten.” And there’s a “Right to Outlive Stupid Stuff You Did in the Past.” But the solution is not defacing the public record with black hat SEO tricks. For one thing, that’s only a cosmetic solution. Someone really out to get dirt will have no trouble finding it. More important, I really dislike the casual acceptance of black hat tricks just because they’re deployed in a cause to which most of us are sympathetic.
I have always been suspicious of technical solutions to human problems. In this case, using black hat SEO for reputation management isn’t even a good technical solution, much less an ethical human solution. The real solution is doing something that humans are much better at than computers: forgetting. Your new significant other doesn’t like Facebook pictures of you and your previous spouse? He or she needs to get over it. That’s how life is lived now. A potential employer is nervous about dumb stuff you did in high school? Get over it. (And if you’re in high school or college, think a bit before you post.) It’s true that the Internet never forgets, but that is hardly a new problem. We forget how well people have remembered in the past, before they had cyberspace to help them. There are always old wedding pictures in family albums and newspapers, and pranks recalled by old roommates who are more willing to talk than they should be. The Internet hasn’t invented the skeleton in the closet, it’s only made it easier to take the skeleton out. That doesn’t mean that humans can’t be mature.