Forcing those Web Skeletons Back Into the Closet?

My wife’s company employs a large number of recent college graduates in entry-level business research positions. This is a cohort drawn largely from the members of the internet generation, who (in the developed world, at least) have never known a time when networking technologies were not omnipresent, and a functionally limitless buffet of information was not available at essentially no cost. Ever more sophisticated web-authoring tools have grown up right alongside the members of this generation, and in consequence, they are also disproportionately accustomed to creating, rather than merely consuming, online content. [Let's proceed with the rest of this posting on the assumption that I have inserted here all the customary caveats about broadly generalizing from a few individual stories to the defining characteristics of an entire generation of people — I'll get back to earth in about two more paragraphs.]

This generation’s formative experiences have given them a set of norms and expectations about dealing with digital content that, surprise surprise, doesn’t quite mesh with their parents’ generation. I’ve previously blogged (usually in response to alarmist pieces in the New York Times) about some of the consequences of this. To today’s twentysomethings, the Web is not just a reference library; it’s also a place to store one’s personal diary and interact with friends (including friends one has not met, and likely may never meet, in person).

So much has this sort of online self-disclosure become second nature to some members of this cohort that they can be quite surprised when the more restrictive norms of earlier generations intrude. They may retaliate (as in this funny story from last weekend’s NYT) by bringing a taste of Generation-Y norms to us older folks. More commonly, they may simply get tripped up, as the job applicants and camp counselors in some of my earlier postings did, by the unfamiliar expectations of the generations that didn’t grow up online. At my wife’s company, for example, new employees have proudly shared their Facebook profiles with managers, even where said profiles prominently feature close-up photographs of said employees passed out after a little too much partying — after all, the employees are no doubt thinking, isn’t that sort of sharing, democratizing, and hierarchy-leveling what the internet is all about? (Well, that and the other thing.) ;-)

That’s the backdrop I had in mind while reading today’s Wired News item, Delete Your Bad Web Rep. According to the article,

A new startup, ReputationDefender, will act on your behalf by contacting data hosting services and requesting the removal of any materials that threaten your good social standing. Any web citizen willing to pay ReputationDefender’s modest service fees can ask the company to seek and destroy embarrassing office party photos, blog posts detailing casual drug use or saucy comments on social networking profiles.

The company produces monthly reports on its clients’ online identities for a cost of $10 to $16 per month, depending on the length of the contract. The client can request the removal of any material on the report for a charge of $30 per instance.

Let’s put to one side for the moment the rather eye-popping price tag ($30 per incriminating photo or blog posting comment? That will run into the four figures rather rapidly for even the moderately active social networker). Let’s further sideline the legal issues, which I actually think are less interesting than the social-cultural-political issues here because they’re relatively clear-cut. (In brief, it’s not illegal to post or host materials that “threaten [someone's] good social standing.” Unless it infringes the complainant’s copyright, nobody can force another web site to take down pictures of you or words other people have written about you. Moreover, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace that act merely as conduits for content created and posted by their users enjoy a separate statutory immunity from liability for defamation or other tortious conduct by their users. As for the Wired article’s suggestion that ISPs may take down even non-infringing, non-defamatory content just to avoid the risk of a lawsuit, well, just ask Diebold how well the strategy of threatening baseless litigation worked out for them.)

No, what really makes the story interesting is that (if the NYT stories are accurate) the bulk of the personally embarrassing content that has gotten Gen-Y’ers in trouble, they posted themselves. If a recent graduate is worried that information in their Facebook profile may reflect poorly on them in the eyes of their managers, they can just edit the profile themselves to remove it. I am hoping that the company isn’t simply banking on the technological unsophistication of students’ parents, who can be induced to fork over $30 a pop for the company to ask Facebook to remove materials their own children posted. JP‘s involvement reassures me that things are probably on the up-and-up, but in light of what I’ve already said about the persistence of networked information, it seems like this outfit faces an uphill climb if it is truly to deliver what it advertises.

3 Responses to “Forcing those Web Skeletons Back Into the Closet?”

  1. [...] A commentator of the ‘Reputation Defenders’ writes about how the Web is not just a reference-library to us. [...]

  2. [...] There has been tons of discussion, on this blog and more generally, about the great degree to which our private information is now available on the internet to anyone who cares to look (on our blog alone, see e.g. Tim’s thoughts here and here, mine here, and Derek’s here). As a result of this phenomenon, prospective employers now use search engines to learn things about job applicants that cannot be discerned from the usual routine of cover letter, resume, interview, and references. The general American reaction is that this is a new reality of the internet age, which may persuade people to display a little less of themselves online, may expand employers’ tolerance of certain off-hours conduct, and may create demand for services that claim to clean up one’s undesirable information found online. (Probably all three…) [...]

  3. [...] Finally, ReputationDefender — about which Tim commented trenchantly in this space earlier this month — searches out online information about you (no big deal for anyone mildly skilled at Googling) — and, more importantly, helps eliminate the bad stuff (for a fee). It’s not fully clear how they do this, but mostly they probably request that the host of the content remove it; such requests are often honored. [...]