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What is more important than your reputation? For most individuals and businesses, the answer to that is simple: "not much."

Our increasingly networked world has only boosted the importance of reputation. On the internet, the investment often seen today in PR, social media and reputation management solutions highlights this.

But is reputation dead? According to TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, it is. In a blog post this weekend, he writes:

Trying to control, or even manage, your online reputation is becoming increasingly difficult. And much like the fight by big labels against the illegal sharing of music, it will soon become pointless to even try. It’s time we all just give up on the small fights and become more accepting of the indiscretions of our fellow humans.

He goes on to argue, essentially, that the only thing that would really matter in the future is "hard proof of being a bad person" -- stuff like criminal records or photos of an individual caught red-handed committing a horrific crime. And Arrington even argues that "the kind of accusations that can kill a career today will likely be seen as a badge of honor, and a sign of an ambitious individual..." I'm sure that will be music to the ears of future wannabe Bernie Madoffs.

Unfortunately, it's easy for bloggers to dismiss 'reputation' in the abstract. But in the real world, reputation does matter. If you own a small, local business, what customers in the community you serve say about you can make or break your business. If you're a web developer, being known as someone who writes solid code and finishes projects on time will likely make you a hot commodity. If you're a business executive, a track record of delivering results will likely be rewarded. If you're a job-seeker, the right reference from a former employer can result in employment. And so on and so forth.

There are numerous flaws with Arrington's argument. Two worth noting:

  • Reputation isn't merely concerned with determining whether or not someone is simply a "bad person". Reputation is a two-way street, and most of the time, individuals are far more interested in knowing about your virtues and successes than they are your indiscretions and failures. Naturally, when an individual's virtues and successes are not visible but indiscretions and failures are, there's a problem.
  • Concerns about anonymous comments left online by people who "doesn't like you" are overblown. Anonymous comments of this nature rarely carry any weight, especially when people with real names eagerly vouch for your good reputation. For those of us who work in small, tight-knit industries or communities, a good word from the right person -- just one -- can make a career, close a business deal, etc.

In short, a good reputation is something that most conscientious individuals work hard to earn, and for good reason. A good reputation leads to trust, and trust greases the wheels of long-term success. Everybody, of course, makes mistakes. And the internet often makes it easier for others to learn of these mistakes. But that doesn't mean that reputation is going away. For one, not everybody is making the same mistakes. It may come as a shocker to Arrington, but you won't, for instance, find "ridiculous drunk college pictures" of every single person who attended college because (surprise?) not everyone who attends college has a habit of getting drunk and doing dumb things in public.

This said, the things that factor into reputation can change in terms of how they're weighed. Thanks to the internet, we are learning more intimate details about businesses and individuals -- details that might have remained unknown pre-internet. That's why both individuals and businesses should be aware of two components of reputation that are increasingly important today:

  • Your judgment. Everybody makes mistakes, but not everybody exercises good judgment. Case in point: an employer might be willing to look past the fact that a prospective employee likes to 'let loose' on the weekend, but the prospective employee who posts sordid photos of questionable (or illicit) weekend activities on Facebook for all to see shows a real lack of judgment. The behavior itself may be forgivable, but the lack of judgment in posting pictures (or letting pictures be taken in the first place) is far more problematic.
  • How well you respond to your mistakes. Individuals are already pretty accepting of indiscretion. If a business makes a big mistake, for example, customers might very well overlook the mistake if ownership or management responds by trying to rectify the mistake in an honest and fair manner. As we've seen in the realm of social media, companies are often criticized more for their responses to PR crises than they are for the events that led to the crises in the first place.

At the end of the day, managing your reputation online may not be easy, but I don't think it's as difficult (or impossible) as Arrington makes it out to be. So long as you do right by others (especially your employers, clients and customers), act with honesty and integrity, use good judgment and make a good faith effort to rectify your mistakes, you'll be fine. That has always been the case, and it still is today. Fortunately, decent, hard-working people already do these things, and because of that, there are far fewer people and businesses with a closet full of skeletons than Arrington seems to believe.

On that note, it's worth pointing out that Arrington himself recently terminated a TechCrunch intern after determining that the intern had accepted compensation for a blog post. In doing so, Arrington apologized to TechCrunch's readers and explained that all of the intern's posts had been removed to ensure that TechCrunch's content wasn't "tainted". Arrington didn't brush off this intern's indiscretion, and he didn't expect his readers to either.

More than anything else, his termination of the intern and apology to his readers were clearly designed to defend TechCrunch's reputation. This proves one thing: while it's easy to dismiss the importance of reputation in the abstract, most of us understand instinctively just how important it is in real life. That's one thing the internet is never going to change.

Photo credit: Shiny Things via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 March, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2378 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Nigel Sarbutts

Nigel Sarbutts, Managing Director at BrandAlert

I've read Michael's original posting and he seems to be focussing on low-level foul-ups. Even at that trivial level, simply giving up is never going to be the right thing to do, although I agree that we have re-calibrated our filters on material like good natured party pics on Facebook being seen by HR managers. Even HR managers like to party. If, on the other hand, your leisure pursuit of choice involves dressing up in Nazi regalia, then you deserve to be exposed. A good working defintion of reputation is: "the result of everything you say and everything you do". The things you do part has always been the tough one for corporations and the growth of social media/social networks has been teaching some of them hard lessons. The key to this is in the paragraph dealing with how you respond to criticism.

over 6 years ago

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matt dailey

I am surprised that someone so ingrained in digital as Arrington has taken this standpoint on reputation and not taken into account the bigger picture and how absolutely integral the nature of a companies reputation can be to their success. This is even more relevant when the company is engaged in service industries where customer satisfaction and feedback is so key.

There are any umber of stats available on the number of people who look at reviews of companies and products before making purchase decisions and the pedestal on which user and peer reviews sit vs advertising. Due to this exponentially growing trend, reputation, although not everything is key to business and individuals alike. I agree that top down control of that reputation is no longer solely in the hands of the companies themselves, but that does not diminish its importance.

over 6 years ago

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Mike Mcd

The internet has proved how a good reputation can be tarnished quickly by a moment of bad behavior, example Michael Phelps. We all have had so called "fun" that could have destroyed our reputation but was never catch on tape. Social Media can be "fun" to post on as a young party person but may haunt you later in the process of finding a job. Reputation management is everything and now starts the moment you create any Social Media account. Being anonymous seems like the best way to go.

over 6 years ago

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benz star

Only till my natural death could I tell which of what I have been doing is right or wrong, so now I have to try to do well in everything, and then wait to die a natural death.

over 5 years ago

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