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.