What are THEY saying about YOU?


I think therefore I am

Let us first get clear definition on what is an identity. Let us keep it simple and not get dragged too much into the social sciences and philosophical meanings behind identity, although from these disciplines what we could probably agree on without too much debate is that it is your identity[i]: which makes you definable and recognisable; that is your comprehension of yourself as a discrete, separate unit.

This is where we will stop, because today in our digitised society your digital identity is quite simply an object in duplicate, triplicate and much more, copied over numerous disparate directories scattered across the globe. Quite simply your digital identity is made up fields and attributes in numerous databases somewhere. Over where your digital identity is, you have no control.

Be what you desire to appear

The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear. Socrates 470 BC-399 BC

Socrates must have had foresight of the information society that we are all a part of today because this is truer now than what has ever been possible before. For example we can create a digital presence in professional network spaces such as LinkedIn. Here we can build our reputation online in a structured way. Build a picture of the persona that we would like to be seen as, after all, this is where the head hunters are prospecting.

This takes us onto the subject of our reputation which is something that others can influence; either positively or negatively, with references pointing back to you. Hence your reputation are the claims that you make about yourself, which nobody believes unless is is validated by what others say about you. We could add to this by saying that online your reputation is what can be found about you, and then arguably your reputation can also be impacted by what cannot be found on you. For example if you are invisible online the head-hunters will not find you!

Identity vs. reputation

To differentiate your identity from your reputation one could say that your identity has nominal value to you, it enables to you function in society. In affect your digital identity was originally created to provide enough data to government authorities in order to empower them to make decisions concerning the welfare of the state. In addition, your identity has significant value to others motivated to make money from who you are and what you do, e.g. loyalty card schemes which becomes a part of your digital footprint. These are transactions linked to your identity, some of which you have control over, and some that you don’t. Then of course there are the identity thieves that can steal (or one could argue borrow as purported by Jim Harper author of Identity Crisis) your identity and use it to purchase articles on your credit cards, take out additional credit and draw money against your bank account and even create bank accounts for your identity destroying any reputation that you may have built up with institutions providing you with financial services. Your identity is digital, and everything that you do is a history of transactions tied to your identity. This is where an overlap occurs with your digital transactions linked to your identity with your reputation. What is important is that this is your digital footprint, whether you control it or not.

If you don’t control your digital identity, you don’t control either your reputation

Your reputation is worth significant value to you but to others nothing, unless they use your reputation to add value to their own. To all intents and purposes your identity is worth a piece of gold to those motivated to collect, use and abuse identities. Whereas your reputation can be your success or failure in your professional life and private life. Everything you publish online has most likely been copied and replicated to another server or indexed and cached by some search engine. For this reason your reputation has a persistence value that it did not have before. Hence if you don’t control your identity, you don’t control either your online reputation!

Protecting your identity

Your identity and anything that links to you, including the digital residue (digital footprint) you leave in your wake, is a gold mine for gold diggers. Gold diggers can come in many forms; there are those that you share your personal information with because:

  • You have to, i.e. you have no choice with government authorities including law enforcement, health authorities, those you want to borrow money from, etc.,
  • You choose to, i.e. you are a participant in one or more loyalty card schemes where you allow them to track your purchasing habits;
  • You are unaware that a cookie has been downloaded onto your PC that tracks your activities;
  • You are aware that a cookie has been downloaded onto your PC that provides your favourites, shopping basket, etc., when shopping online, e.g. Amazon.com
  • Identity thieves steal/borrow and use your identity for fraudulent purposes.

There are loads of resources online, and books published on how to protect your identity, such as: keep a paper shredder handy at home, don’t take out loyalty cards, avoid accepting cookies (that is if you know they are being downloaded), install the most stringent privacy settings on your browser, use strong passwords and change them often, etc.; a diverse compilation of security procedures aimed to protect your identity, but at the same time, collectively are not altogether practical.

It is impossible to protect your identity in its entirety, and most people do not even try. One could roughly categorise the efforts that people take at three levels:

  1. Those that are not aware, or concerned about threats to their personal privacy and do not see identity theft as something that can happen to them;
  2. Those that are aware but feel that the benefits received from those interested in their identity, i.e. loyalty card schemes, outweigh any supposed costs to their privacy, however this group does appreciate the threat of identity theft;
  3. Those that are very concerned about the threat of personal privacy: they avoid loyalty card schemes, have software installed on their PC to inform them of any threats (i.e. cookies at the lowest level), and have a paper shredder at home.

You can do yourself a service by identifying yourself within one of these three categories, and then be conscious about what you are, or are not doing to protect your identity. Search online for “protecting identity”, you will be offered a rich collection of advice in the form of: tips, articles, videos, etc., then you can make a choice on what works for you.

Nurturing your reputation

Your reputation is worth nurturing. You can use your online reputation to create a type of personal branding. Once you have separated your reputation from your identity it becomes quite straightforward to take it and manage it. Your reputation could possibly, be divided into three phases:

  1. What you did before,
  2. What you are doing now and in your lifetime, and finally
  3. What happens after you die.

It takes skill to manage your reputation effectively.

Taking control of your past reputation

The consequences of what you have done before today, can be positive or negative. It is positive if it reaffirms what you have stated about yourself. If it does not, for example, there are photos of you half naked and drunk on your MySpace profile, then this information has the potential to be damaging to what you want to achieve today or tomorrow and doubtless in your professional life, both online and offline. As already stated, digital information has a persistence value i.e. it never goes away.

There are companies around that are providing services to help us manage our digital footprint are:

  • Reputation Defender that offers to cleans up any digital residue that has the potential to negatively impact your (and your children’s) reputation. They offer a one-off cleaning service, and continuous, e.g. checking what your children have been doing online on a monthly basis and sending reports, cleaning up, etc.;
  • Services such as ZoomInfo, which empowers you to have some control on what you want people to find on you first, and if you are lucky, maybe they will not look any further. These types of services deliver unstructured information in a structured way. For instance it searches the Internet for occurrences of your name in newspapers published around the world. If instances are returned you are given the option to claim them as linked to your identity. To prove your identity you need to provide your credit-card details. Once you have claimed your identity, any person that Googles you will be returned with your ZoomInfo profile near the top of the search ranking.

Taking control of your reputation – today and in the future

LinkedIn, Spoke, and similar online professional networking tools are a perfect median for creating a personal online brand that reflects who you are today and the vision of what you want to be in the future. Your online brand can be enhanced by requesting personal recommendations for your work from existing, or ex-colleagues. Be aware that everything in your profile is searchable, so encourage those recommending you to use words that will return as key word searches that persons such as head-hunters will use when looking for candidates, e.g. visionary, a leader. The most powerful statements about your capabilities come from others, not you. These will make you into a powerful online brand.Other ways to strengthen your brand is: to show active participation in online forums; host or partake in a professional blog; twitter; volunteer for work in charities that give you an opportunity to practice skills that are not possible in your present role; take part in sporting events; publish, or think about becoming a speaker. All of these activities will be recorded somewhere online and will return in a search against your name.

Finally to maintain a clean online reputation you need to be wary of cross-feeding, i.e. contaminating your professional reputation with your social activities, possible by allowing feeds between your social and professional profiles and accepting friend requests in Facebook from your professional network. Google yourself and see what it returns. It is also advisable to make your privacy settings on Facebook or whatever social median you use as stringent as is possible. Beware that your friends may not do the same. They can tag you, link you and describe activities that include you that could be public domain.

Rest in virtual peace (RIVP)

Do you really care about what happens to the virtual you after you die? Well it seems that many do. In fact this space is becoming so important that a new and growing business has appeared on the landscape in the shape of the ‘virtual mortuary’. Just as a mortuary takes care of your physical remains after your death, the virtual mortuary takes care of your virtual self.

A virtual mortuary is in effect a third party assigned to take care of a person’s online identity and reputation after they have died. I have seen a couple of companies popping up online to offer these services a couple of years ago, although they don’t look very active today. Even though clearly this type of effort could be done by some person near and dear to the deceased, by using an objective third-party, you can in effect leave a ‘will’ on how you would like to be seen by your children, grand-children etc., in your online persona after you have moved on to the other not so physical or virtual world. A virtual mortuary could offer services that can keep some communications active after death, so you are twittering in the afterlife, and this type of service could theoretically even organise your virtual funeral in Second Life or in some other virtual world where you virtually existed in life.

Finally…

Your identity needs to be protected and your reputation needs nurturing, both plusdigital transactions left in the wake of your identity comprises your digital footprint. If you don’t control your identity, you are at risk of losing control over your reputation which is a part of your digital footprint.

There are new ways emerging to enforce your identity, so that you, the identity owner has control. I call this identity control. More about this is written in other articles that I have published, and plan to publish during the following weeks….


[i] Wikipedia (2010) Identity. Retrieved 30 July from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity

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