Reputation management can help preserve your modesty

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2003, 12:00am

The Web can come across like a glorified data mine-cum-pornography network. But it has another, grander purpose as a gargantuan rumour generator hot with hearsay and innuendo.

Since rumour travels fast and e-mail moves at the speed of thought, the Web can make or mangle reputations overnight, as in the case of Claire 'yours-was-yum' Swire - the British public relations bunny whose filthy private e-mail ricocheted all over the globe in 2000.

Faced with that magnitude of embarrassment, many of us would wind up in therapy or relocate permanently to the nearest bar.

The new online pseudoscience making waves on the Web, which is imposingly known as 'reputation management', sounds like the answer to the threat of network-facilitated humiliation - a means of ensuring that the adherent never degenerates into a figure of fun. If only.

Reputation management lacks the grace to save the user's face after the e-mail has bolted. If a salacious message you compose winds up in the inbox of a billion strangers who read it with glee, all you can do is try to look small so nobody notices you and, maybe, stop going to work (you will not be employed for much longer, anyway). Damage limitation is out.

But, hey, you can always take the positive reputation management approach and advertise how amazing you are on your own vanity web page: a shrine to yourself and your accomplishments. A typical example boasts pictures of the owner's glowing children, luminously beautiful significant other and flashy car.

In truth, of course, to a discerning visitor, a vanity web page only advertises the fact that the owner is self-obsessed. But reputation management does undeniably play a useful personal role in the field of internet wheeling and dealing.

Consider eBay. Anyone planning to offload some junk on this auction site would be ill-advised to act the shark because what eBay users do sticks.

EBay records 'reputation ratings' for all vendors, whether they are selling used screen wipes or the keys to the universe. Vendors must therefore, at risk of social suicide or expulsion from the site, deliver the genuine article.

Supposing somebody offers you the original copy of 'The Adoration of the Magi' by the renaissance master Botticelli and what you actually receive turns out to be a watercolour by Bozo the chimp. In that case, unless you have a generous opinion of simian art, you could justifiably badmouth the seller for inaccuracy.

The same pattern applies to shipping. If the vendor pledges same-day delivery but your item fails to arrive until well after your death, you can register a remark about questionable reliability.

Transactions are ranked as positive, negative, or neutral, and those votes are turned into numerical ratings, which eBay uses to gauge satisfaction.

'Be the best and most responsive buyer or seller you can be, and good feedback will follow,' the site pronounces in keeping with the law of karma.

The idea of customer reviews comes from about the only other dotcom in decent financial fettle, Amazon. But Amazon's amateur reviews cannot be relied on because of the danger of rigging. An author's enemies post a flood of scathing reviews, followed by the author's cronies who heartily do the reverse.

Website rankings conducted by reputation management software encourage a touch more credulity. The prime example is the mighty and increasingly inescapable Google, which maintains a reputation rating for every site on the Web including its own, which scores nine out of 10 while rates as eight. The rankings come directly from the Almighty via a satellite connection.

Actually, Google's evaluation of a website's quality stems from the number of other sites that link to it and their importance, however Google's gurus judge importance: impressive use of Flash graphics? Soothing absence of Flash graphics? The hit count or status of the bricks-and-mortar version of the company in question?

Reputation management, itself, looks a dubious addition to the thin air economy's marketing repertoire. In the end you have to make your own mind up. But if that sounds like 1) a platitude and 2) hard work, spoon-fed stats and analysis can, at a pinch, bridge the gap.

Confused by computer jargon? E-mail with your questions