Thursday, March 26, 2015

Now you really are who they think you are

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, public relations, reputation

The Securities and Exchange Commission has an interesting provision to avoid market melt-downs caused by high-speed "robot trading"; when certain criteria are met, time delays are inserted between market orders and market fulfillment. There is no similar provision when a "reputation error" goes viral and someone's life is ruined in a matter of minutes. The old saw has it, "It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, and five minutes to ruin it." Way outdated. A rumor, true or mistaken, can circle the Earth in a second or less, and there's no getting all the toothpaste back in the tube.

Disclaimer on the author's part: Michael Fertik founded, so some might consider his new book to be an advertisement. Regardless, The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize Your Digital Footprint in a World Where Your Reputation is Your Most Valuable Asset, written with his colleague David C. Thompson, is filled with useful information and advice.

Some folks are concerned about identity theft or identity fraud, and the banking and credit card industries are gradually learning how to forestall or recover from the most common kinds of such attacks. But not many of us are ready for the leap from "big data"—such as the records being kept of all phone calls, texts, IM messages and so forth—to "big analysis". Big Analysis has two parts. Firstly, computer programmers are getting more and more able to produce programs that extract meaningful correlations across huge masses of data. Secondly, the CPU's, the "brains" of computers, continue to get faster and multi-CPU clusters are being coupled with better and better sharing systems to break up large problems into smaller chunks for even more efficiency. This latter fact is the reason that weather forecasts have gone from the sort-of-iffy 3- or 4-day forecasts of the 1980s to remarkably competent 7- to 10-day forecasts today.

The time was, you could rely on "security by obscurity" to keep most of your activities below the radar, not only of law enforcement (if you had reason to fear them), but of businesses that could profit from intimate knowledge of your preferences and activities, such as insurance companies and potential employers.

Scenario: You apply for a job at Universal Widget Co. In the age of snail mail, your résumé would arrive the day after you mailed it, and if you were lucky, some HR manager would have only a dozen or so résumés to read, and would like yours well enough to phone you to come in for an interview. But today? Many companies don't accept paper résumés, but want either a PDF (machine-readable of course) or a file readable by MS Word or Word Perfect. And the HR department has received 200-1,000 résumés, so no human will have a first look. Keyword-checking software will weed out all that don't seem to meet minimum criteria, and those that pass this stage may be subject to further automated checking in the records of colleges you claim to have attended and former employers. At this point, 5 or 10 surviving résumés are probably read by a human, who may initiate further electronic searches, such as FaceBook, Twitter, and other social media sites. You get a positive score (P) for criteria met and other character traits that seem helpful, and a negative score (N) for anything they might not like, such as photos of yourself jamming it up in a bar scene, or perhaps skydiving or SCUBA caving. The N score is subtracted from the P score, and at most the top 3 candidates—if indeed anyone still has some P points left—get a call for an interview, in the order of their scores. To paraphrase one question the authors ask, do you have enough moxie, and luck, to satisfy both the machines that judge your résumé and the person who might eventually read it?

The above is a DAMM, a decision almost made by machine. Almost. Actually, for everyone but the 5-10 the HR person actually perused, it was a simple DMM; no "almost" about it.

The greatest lesson of the book for me is that absolutely everything we do that touches the systems of electronic watchdogs out there gets kept forever. Even if an error so blatant you could win a libel suit occurs, and you get some records deleted, somebody already has copies (hundreds of somebodies, most likely), you don't know who they are, and any fact from your past can crop up at any moment. Murphy's Law practically demands it will pop up at the worst possible moment.


  • Every search engine, not just Google or Yahoo!, keeps every search made along with a record of the IP address it came from. (I foretell a large increase in use of library computers) These get sold to anyone with sufficient cash, at a few cents per million. Google alone processes 3-4 billion searches daily.
  • Your cell phone is constantly "pinging" so it knows where the nearest cell tower is. About every 15 minutes, more or less, and it depends on which generation (2G, 3G, 4G) your phone is. In urban areas, your travels can be tracked with an accuracy of a few blocks. In rural areas, the tower spacing is a couple of miles. Of course, when you are on a call, or sending and receiving texts, a new fix is made on your location several times per second. And that is with the phone's GPS turned off!
  • Everything we write, every picture or video we post—or post a link to—is kept. Big Analysis can figure out not only your own proclivities, but those of your FB friends or Twitter followers, and it is human nature to resemble our friends. So if you, for example, work for a prison ministry, use a company FB account to "friend" the inmates! And make sure they know you by a handle that is hard to guess from your name. Many young adults in our son's generation use a pseudonym on FB, also. 
  • Cameras are everywhere. In London, probably at least one on every street corner. Other cities are catching up fast. A friend with a tiny hole-in-the-wall store has 9 cameras in it. It takes very sophisticated methods to confuse a person-recognition camera. Not just how your face looks, but the way you walk or turn your head.

That's just a few items. Do you have "loyalty cards" from stores you use a lot? I just checked my wallet. I carry 5: 2 from groceries, and one each from Sears, a sporting goods store, and a pharmacy. I have several more in a dresser drawer. But that puts me behind the times. Many folks carry 15, 20 or more. All those stores know something about what you like. Whoever has bought all their data (I am sure someone has done so) may know you better than you know yourself! And there are other bits at PayPal, eBay, Amazon, and so it goes.

The biggest piece of advice? Take charge of your reputation. Brag on yourself. Make creative use of Endorsements in LinkedIn and encourage your LI friends to Endorse you; it is no longer considered bad form to point out the strengths you'd most prefer to have Endorsed. If you just have to rant about something, or, most importantly, someone (such as a boss!), do so using an electronic venue that isn't linked to "the rest of you". Future employers are wary of people with anger management issues.

To live in the modern world, we must assume privacy is a thing of the past. So, like someone who might be a bit overweight but wants to look thinner, wear looser clothes, metaphorically speaking, and hang out with people just a little "thinner" than you are. That last seems counterintuitive, but remember this is about reputation. Sure, you'll look thinner if you hang out with fatter people, but someone looking on will expect you to change to be more like them. Substitute your "negative trait of choice" for "overweight" and "fat" above, and its counter-virtue for "thin".

We are still learning to live with TV poking into everything. Now everything can poke its nose into our affairs. We just need a little reputation jiu-jitsu, and this book has at least a few pointers on how to learn some. If I could get just one law passed, a good one might be to mandate a 5-minute delay between hitting "Send" and the delivery of a Twitter post or similar item. Maybe a bigger and bigger delay, the more people it is sent to. Think about it…

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