Erasing the Digital Past (nytimes.com)

Fashion & Style ~ By NICK BILTON
The New York Times

Just ask the New York City teacher who recently divorced his wife of five years. Drop his name into Google, and his ex-wife appears in pictures of vacations and Christmas parties. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to date and your ex is still in the picture, so to speak,” said the teacher, who didn’t want to make matters worse by having his name in a newspaper.

The same goes for Bryan, an advertising executive in New York City. He is an accomplished online marketer and New York University professor, but search his name, and one of the first Web results is a press release from the United States attorney’s office. Eight years earlier, he was charged with wrongfully receiving 9/11 grant money. “Even after all these years,” those links remained, said Bryan, who paid a $2,000 fine.

And then there is the Philadelphia physiologist who became unwittingly linked to a consumer advocacy site, when it listed him as a graduate of a distance learning school that was shut down. “I felt totally victimized because there was nothing I could do,” said the physiologist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want added attention. “My case load started to dry up.”

At first, some tried manipulating the Web results on their own, by doing things like manually deleting photos from Flickr, revising Facebook pages and asking bloggers to remove offending posts. But like a metastasized cancer, the incriminating data had embedded itself into the nether reaches of cyberspace, etched into archives, algorithms and a web of hyperlinks.

After failing to rid the negative sites on their own, most turned to a new breed of Web specialists known as online reputation managers, who offer to expunge negative posts, bury unfavorable search results and monitor a client’s virtual image.

Now when they perform a Web search of themselves, the negative links are harder to find. “It took a couple of months, but now when you Google my name, the negative sites are buried about six or seven pages in,” the physiologist said. “My clientele has dramatically improved, and when people call to make inquires, they always say they got my name from the Internet.”

The company he used, Reputation.com, is among a growing corps of online reputation managers that promise to make clients look better online. In an age when a person’s reputation is increasingly defined by Google, Facebook and Twitter, these services offer what is essentially an online makeover, improving how someone appears on the Internet, usually by spotlighting flattering features and concealing negative ones.

“The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too,” said Michael Fertik, the chief executive of Reputation.com, which is in Redwood City, Calif., and is among the largest in this field. “We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”

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