A Social Media Makeover?

Social media networking sites are great for winning friends and influencing people. But what do you do when they have you looking bad? Now, a growing number of companies offer to help people and businesses protect their online image and repair ruined reputations. But do they work, and are they worth it? Guest host Allison Keyes discusses online reputation management services with Xeni Jardin, co-editor of leading tech culture website, BoingBoing.net.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Today it's almost rare to come across someone who doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn account. And while social networking sites are great for winning friends and influencing people, they can just as easily lead to you losing friends, or worse, jobs and alienating people. So what do you do when unflattering pictures, controversial postings or negative reviews make you or your business look bad?

Well, you hire an online reputation management specialist, of course. These services are popping up, claiming to help protect and repair ruined online reputations. How do they work? And more importantly, are they worth it? To find out, I'm joined now by Xeni Jardin. She's a tech culture blogger and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. Welcome.

Ms. XENI JARDIN (Blogger and Co-Editor, Boing Boing): Hi, it's great to be here. Thanks.

KEYES: So, what do these reputation management services actually do?

Ms. JARDIN: Depends on the service and it also depends on which level of product you pay for from which company. But I would say that probably the best known of these companies used to be called reputation defender. Now they're just calling themselves Reputation.com. They're out of Silicon Valley and they purport to help you protect your Internet privacy.

So, depending on how much you pay them, the service may involve tracking what public records leak online to helping parents protect their kids from, you know, embarrassing postings on Friendster or Facebook or MySpace. And there's premium services that companies like this offer where they'll, let's say, email a blog that has written something unflattering about you. The fact that you, I don't know, if you're a celebrity and you looked really bad in a particular dress at a particular awards show or if you're a, let's say, a senator and you were caught doing something that a senator ought not to do.

KEYES: But, OK, having talked about cost, how much do they cost? Isn't it a big difference between, shall we say, regular folk and the celebrity senator types?

Ms. JARDIN: If you take a look at the Reputation.com site now, most of what they are marketing are these sort of 12.95 to 19.95 range a month for - just services for regular folks. And as I understand it, there's figures that are more in this sort of five-figure range, like 10,000 and up, to secure what are more like traditional publicity services.

But the trick is, though, I view these services with the same kind of skepticism that I think a lot of us view, say, credit protection, credit monitoring services or companies that purport to help you with bankruptcy. There's a big and real problem, but these companies are exploiting a need and I don't know that they're truly offering a solution that consumers need.

KEYES: Xeni, as far as most of us that aren't computer savvy think, once something is online, I mean, isn't it pretty much out there forever? So, isn't it kind of incumbent upon you as a person to not post, you know, unfortunate pictures to your Facebook page or rant about your employer on Twitter?

Ms. JARDIN: The easy and obvious answer to that question is yes. But we all make mistakes. That said, there's an eternal joke on the Internet called the Streisand effect. Barbara Streisand once had this battle with these different websites that were posting photos of her house off the coast of California. And she tried to get her lawyers to go after all these different websites and take them down. What ended up happening is that the photos ended up spreading exponentially wider than they would've if she just kind of kept her mouth shut.

So that's shorthand for exactly what you just said. That said, these firms can and do sometimes get results.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm speaking with tech culture expert Xeni Jardin about social media networks and managing one's online image.

Xeni, you've said you're skeptical about some of these online reputation management services because you think that they are connected with some services that publish personal data online. What's your evidence for that?

Ms. JARDIN: You know, it's hard to tell. I remember, for instance, when Spokeo.com burst into public awareness some months back. This was a site where you can enter anyone's name and generally find a lot more information than you might expect about them. Nobody is exactly sure where all of that information comes from. But on the Spokeo website, there's a page that suggests what you ought to do if you're concerned about that and they point to Reputation.com.

I emailed the company a while ago, Spokeo, asking if they were owned by the same company. The answer wasn't entirely clear. Whether or not there is sort of a directly visible financial relationship between the two companies, it's obvious to me that there are sort of two sides of the same coin in the marketplace. You have one set of startups that profit by exposing the heck out of your data and then another set of companies that want to exploit your well-based fears that your data is leaking out there.

KEYES: So, Xeni, what are your practical tips for protecting yourself from that unfortunate Google search result?

Ms. JARDIN: If you're drunk and naked at a party, stay away from cameras. There are a number of kind of practical, basic privacy hygiene steps that we all can take. For instance, you know, contacting our credit card companies and our banks and proactively making sure that the greatest privacy protection is in effect. That, you know, they're not sharing your credit history with third parties. That sort of thing.

Another tip that's often mentioned is using a P.O. box or a mailbox rental service instead of your personal home address. Some people who are more publicly visible are careful about making purchases in the name of a trust instead of their own personal name.

Look, there are books written about this sort of thing. Talking about sort of your financial data and your physical data is one thing, when we're just talking about what we voluntarily post, that, I think, is more of an issue of mindfulness.

KEYES: Let me ask you, though, because of course you said voluntary, but how do you stop that friend or frenemy, or whomever from posting or tagging you in some picture?

Ms. JARDIN: Man, that's tough. I mean, some people have actually gone to court over this sort of thing. This is now the stuff of lawsuits. All I can say is, you know, for myself personally, I ended up opting out of Facebook for that reason. I found the whole experience more frustrating in terms of social bonds than helpful. But I think just - if they really are your friends, not your, quote, "Facebook friends," you ought to be able to tell them, look, I didn't come here for a publicity shoot. I just came here to have dinner with you. Put the camera down and don't tag me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: I am not friending you. Xeni Jardin is a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. Thanks for joining us. And I guess just be careful out there.

Ms. JARDIN: Thank you very much.

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