Monday, September 08, 2008

Dr. Phil starts Season 7 with another show about "online reputation"


Dr. Phil started his 7th season today, in High Definition for the first time. Right at the “get go”, he handled the rumor that he and his wife would split up. Not true, he said. Robin came out onto the stage (although she wasn’t in “The Puffy Chair”) and Dr. Phil showed a picture of the cruise ship they had been on together recently.

Last year, Dr. Phil had broadcast a program called “Internet Mistakes” (on this blog Jan. 15) and today he opened the season with a show called “Busted Online.” The link is here. By the way, Dr. Phil says he will revamp his website soon, so I hope these links still work then.

He says that 94% of kids 12 to 17 use the Internet at home, and 58% have an online profile, usually on Myspace or Facebook. I think we know where this program is heading. Yes, kids are putting things out there that employers or colleges could find years later, and what is “worse” is that sometimes others put things up without their knowledge or consent. In fact, NBC4 (in Washington) recently reported that some employers even check “friends” lists to see what kind of company applicants keep.

He told the story of a former Miss Washington (state) (Elyse Umemoto), who was defamed by embarrassing photos taken privately and put up from a stolen camera. That does sound like a tort. At the end of the show, he recounted a case where a drunk driver, before sentencing, went to a party in orange jumpers as a costume, and the photos were placed online. This came to the attention of the sentencing judge, who was appalled by his lack of remorse and gave him the maximum sentence.

Now, I come to my own take on it. Dr. Phil said that it’s a new thing: many people, especially teenagers, love the fame that comes from “publishing their lives online.” True, a lot is written about this, although much of it is not always so much about publication as a continuing sense of connectivity. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I want to say that some of this material today comes across to me as a red herring. Yes, it’s bad if an employer sees pictures of your underage drinking or drug use. But Facebook isn’t the problem: it’s your behavior in the first place. You shouldn’t be drinking when underage. Period. And you shouldn’t be driving while intoxicated. That’s a crime anyway. Facebook has nothing to do with it. Don’t blame Mark Zuckerberg – he had know idea this would happen with the novelty that he launched to the world from his dorm room at the age of 20. (You can say the same about Myspace and all the other social networking and blogging services.)

But there is another area, too, and that is that reputation is a subjective concept. Yes, in some jobs, where clients are likely to look you up on the Internet, it’s a big deal. Dr. Phil presented two sham interviews with candidates, and then showed their Facebook profiles. Yes, for a criminal investigator or for a professional reported, you might not want an online presence that has only questionable party photos, even if there is nothing “wrong” with them “objectively.” One problem is that the employer might expect you to have some kind of an online presence, a professional one. That means that you need to be sure of what you want to do with your life and feel good about it, enough to want to see it in public. This is kind of a new paradigm that we didn’t have before.

However, employers should behave ethically, too. There is a serious risk that they can identify the wrong person (a possibility that Dr. Phil didn’t mention). They shouldn’t do “search engine background checks” (which are inaccurate) behind the applicant’s back; they should have an announced personnel policy appropriate for the job. This is a Human Resources issue, not just a “Dr. Phil” case. Dr. Phil briefly introduced Reputation Defender CEO and founder Michael Fertik, who mentioned "the sniff test" and said that most people (including employers) judge on first impressions even when they check people online and don't bother to think through what is really happening (because they are afraid that their clients won't); furthermore, established celebrities have a chance to explain themselves; "ordinary people" don't. Fertik mentioned that sometimes search engines happen to collect the more negative references at top; he said that teens often publish personal information about their parents and siblings, that could hurt their parents at work.

Now, all this comes back to me. Yes, I published my story, in a book and then online. It’s been there for ten years. Many visitors are familiar with my story, and I think it makes some important social and political points. I even think it could make a good movie. One can ask: well, if it is worth publishing, shouldn’t you be able to find a publisher to pay you to publish it? Shouldn’t it have to justify itself by proving that people will pay to see it? Indeed, these could be good questions. Self-publishing has become an acceptable form of entrepreneurship – but should it have an accountability component (at least in terms of financial returns)? After all, the “reputation” effect can involve others beside myself, even if it is primarily my story which I “own”.

A particular issue in my case with “reputation” is its relationship to sexual orientation – for me, especially, because it goes way back to the 50s, when “you could really ruin someone’s reputation” with verbal innuendo (or by raiding bars and publishing names in newspapers). These issues could affect the standing of whole families. The effects linger, when an increasing number of jobs today (for reasons that are partly economic and partly demographic) involve functioning as a “role model” in some way. So telling a story like mine, however well intended, can run counter effort to pressure put on me by others sometimes to function as a “male role model.” Reputation is a troubling concept when so much of it is in the eye of the beholder.

Update: May 28

Dr. Phil rebreoadcast the show today. As an exercise, look at Ashton Kutcher's Myspace and Facebook profiles and search results. Yes, they're funny (with the "punked" stuff) but the Twitter-master actually manages his presence carefully and knows what he is doing. Many people don't.

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