The Reputation Economy

The Reputation Economy is written by Michael Fertik, and David C. Thompson, who are Harvard and Stanford law grads, respectively, and who are founders (CEO and first general counsel/privacy officer, respectively) of The Reputation Economy is a good choice for getting some good grounding on this moment in history for navigating the intersection of upheaval in technology, society, and privacy. For one, it’s easy to forget how quickly things are changing, but the book’s authors themselves refer to their own book’s offered wisdom as likely helpful for the next few years or so, and generally write with an explicit awareness that their book will be obsolete before long.

Like many books, the first chapter is really written to sell you the book–so it’s much more about why reputation is important than it is about what you can do to manage your reputation. No reason to do that by halves, so the chapter alternates with threats and promises. Threats include permanent consignment to the dustbin of professional strivers and total isolation and anonymity for would-be romantics, because, in plain terms, digital reputations close doors. Promises include never having to write a cover letter or say “hey” on a dating site, because reputations not only can open doors, they can mean you don’t even need to knock. It’s hard to fault them for trying (mine is a library copy, sorry guys) and there were some good gems in the section, although I’d have liked it better if it had more practical tips, and less anecdotes of fear/promise.

The third chapter is a discussion of disruption in the education economy… which is a fascinating point. Just as the U.S. economy is increasingly a single, competitive economy, so too the global economy is increasingly a single place–and a place where hundreds of millions of people get college degrees each year… and are, on that basis, hard to distinguish from each other. College is still extremely desirable, because for all that it is an imperfect signal, it’s better than nothing. But with (for one example) online education starting to come into its own, there’s pretty likely to be big change on the horizon, with actual learning (potentially, anyway) being something a person can demonstrate, rather than signal.

On the topic of actual relationship management, there are some good practical tips here Some good ones I recall (although I’m writing these from memory, having already returned the book):

  • Google yourself, and see what comes up, and take steps to follow-up if you don’t like what you see.
  • Keep your linkedin current, and remember that you are more likely to get positive recommendations and endorsements from people you either a) ask explicitly to give you recommendations or endorsements and b) from people to whom you give endorsements or recommendations.
  • Practice internet hygiene. Understand that your real-life shopping habits, your answers to dating profile questions, your Facebook friends, and may all become linked together and used to make snap judgments about you, whether that is to offer you a job or to advertise maternity wear to you on Facebook when you recently purchased a pregnancy test at Fred Meyer.

Overall, this book is probably going to be most helpful to someone who wants to approach managing their online presence much the way an engineer might approach an optimization problem. It’s a little too long, and too interested in selling the services of, rather than tackling the problem itself, but I still got some good use from it.

There are a lot of other questions that having a digital reputation creates, which this book’s focus on “reputation” assumes away. Reputation is one aspect–call it the backside of the coin–of the core problem of the way in which our social connections and personal meaning are digitally mediated. It isn’t just a problem of how we look and how we choose to look; it’s a problem of who we are, and who we choose to become.

Within that broader topic of having digital selves, a book I really enjoyed was  “So you’ve been publicly shamed” by Jon Ronson. It’s about problems of navigating the weirdly distorted community dynamics that exist in many online spaces. The book contains a lot of well-sourced reporting on the larger stories and longer-term consequences in the lives of people who become internet-famous in ways that subject them to deliberate shaming behavior at the hands of internet communities.

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