David Thompson: Wild West 2.0 - Author interview

Online reputation expert, and general counsel and Chief Reputation Officer at ReputationDefender, David Thompson, co-author with Michael Fertik, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about their eye opening and groundbreaking book Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier.

David Thompson describes how the openness of the internet, with so much information about individuals and organizations readily available, that many dangers to reputation lurk in many dark corners of the world wide web. He shares proven real world techniques to establish a positive reputation, and how to protect and restore it from attacks.

Thanks to David Thompson for his time, and for his informative and comprehensive responses. They are greatly appreciated.

What was the background to writing this book Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier?

David Thompson: Today, the Internet can make or break anyone's reputation and career. People ranging from PTA parents, to C-level executives, to mom-and-pop businesses have been affected by online rumors and gossip. We wanted to distill our experience and provide a guide to why the Internet is so different than other media, and then give step-by-step directions for professionals and small businesses that want to protect themselves.

It was time for a book that explained to professionals and small businesses what they need to do to protect themselves. There were many books about Internet marketing for big businesses, but none that showed why and how to proactively build their reputation online.

In the book, the internet is compared to the frontier. What does the internet share in common with the frontier of the Old West?

David Thompson: Everyone is familiar with the "gold rush" phase of the Internet. But many people don't realize the many other ways that the Internet is like the Old West frontier. Both started with small groups of pioneers who established their own rough-and-tumble culture on the new frontier. Both featured large "gold rushes" where millions of people followed those initial pioneers. And both featured a large culture clash when "old" and "new" societies came into conflict.

Right now, we're in the culture clash phase of the Internet frontier. Millions of people are finding out that law enforcement doesn't work the same way online, that online norms of behavior bear very little resemblance to offline norms, and that they are at risk whether they use the Internet or not. We wanted to give them the tools they need to practice active self-defense online, and an understanding of the cultural differences between offline and online communities.

David Thompson (photo left)

Many people are either unaware of reputation issues on the internet or consider them to be overblown. What do you say to those people?

David Thompson: It's hard to over-estimate how important online reputation is to professionals and small businesses---and how quickly it can be made and destroyed. Professionals and small businesses are not like big companies. Big companies develop positive or negative reputations over the course of years and millions of comments. Today, a company like BP might have 10 million people talking about its safety record every day. It's hard for any one voice to dominate that conversation.

But most individuals and small businesses have very little online presence. One dedicated attacker -- whether a jealous co-worker, a scorned lover, or simply a teenager out for some mean "fun" -- can quickly and anonymously destroy a professional online reputation. We've seen cases where everyday people were attacked for seemingly no reason, and then had to spend tens or hundreds of hours cleaning up the damage. Everyone is vulnerable -- trying to ignore the danger doesn't make it go away.

In the book, it is stated quite clearly that a person' s internet reputation is their reputation. What do you mean by that?

David Thompson: Today, nearly everyone uses Google to search for information about each other. The information that shows up at the top of a Google search (or even the absence of information totally) sets the frame through which individuals are viewed.

People search for information about their neighbors, their children's teachers, their doctors, their office-mates, the people they meet at conferences, and nearly everybody else they interact with.

Unfortunately, most web searchers just skim Google headlines and maybe click on just a couple of results. The vast majority of web searchers never get past the first page of Google results. False or misleading information on the first page of Google can forever tarnish your reputation, and create a self-sustaining cycle of repetition.

What are some of the forces that drive internet reputation for both good and bad?

David Thompson: Anonymity and social distance have changed everything. They are the biggest differences from face-to-face communications, and two of the reasons why reputations are at risk online.

The Internet is fundamentally anonymous. Some sites require registration, but the basic technology of the Internet works completely anonymously. Anonymity has been used for good and evil online. For good, it allows people to talk freely about politics, to explore new identities, the blow the whistle on polluting corporations, and many other purposes. But it also allows people to attack each other without taking any responsibility or accountability. People feel free to attack without putting their own good name at risk.

The Internet also creates social distance. Studies (ranging from Milgram's famous "shock" experiment to studies of soldiers' ability to kill) have shown that people are more likely to cause each other harm when they are physically and emotionally distant from their victims. The computer creates a powerful social distance by replacing face-to-face interactions with virtual ones, with no way to see into the victim's eyes.

Many companies and individuals find themselves defending against anonymous attacks. What can be done about anonymous attackers to prevent their assaults and to lessen their damage?

David Thompson: The most powerful thing you can do is to take control of your reputation before somebody else does. If you build powerful positive and neutral online content about yourself, you can stop future attackers from having as large an impact on your reputation.

Your defenses can be as simple as making sure that you have registered all the usernames that relate to your name (so as to prevent impersonation) and registering YourName.com, to as secure as building a substantial amount of web content.

Is the ease of search through Google contributing to reputation problems online?

David Thompson: People now use Google to ask questions they would never ask face-to-face. In many circumstances, Google can be a powerful tool for research. But it has been abused by people who use it to pry into the lives of their neighbors and acquaintances.

The problem is worsened by the fact that Google's results look so authoritative. We use the term "Google Truth" to describe the fact that Google creates the impression that just 10 search results can be a complete, fair, or reasonable portrait of somebody's life. Really, we are all much more complex and nuanced people than Google could possibly summarize with just 10 links.

Co-author Michael Fertik (photo left)

Why do people attack others online anyway? What is their benefit or goal?

David Thompson: People attack each other online for all the same reasons as they do offline; it's just an order of magnitude easier online because of social distance and anonymity.

We've seen attacks by everyone ranging from bitter ex-lovers, to scorned former employees, to jealous co-workers, to neighborhood gossips, to angst-riddled teenagers who want to create a mess. Small businesses are especially at risk because competitors have every incentive to leave false negative reviews and attacks. There is no one single explanation for online attacks; instead we list many of the most common causes in Wild West 2.0.

What are some of the most common form of attacks made online?

David Thompson: Nearly anything can be an online attack. We often see people who make bold lies about other people--ranging from false accusations of infidelity to allegations of a drinking problem. Thanks to digital technology, we're seeing more and more people fall victim to manipulated or forged photos---Photoshop photo editing software makes it easy for attackers to create photo forgeries that are convincing to nearly all viewers. And we're even seeing some brazen online impersonation attacks, where the attacker tries to hijack the victim's entire digital life.

How can the amount of damage be assessed and measured by a company experiencing online attack?

David Thompson: A structured online reputation audit can help a small business experiencing attack. By carefully measuring the types of people who might be searching for you, and then exploring the search results they see, it is possible to determine exactly how severe the damage has been. A careful online reputation audit also helps to uncover what we call "iceberg content"---that is, negative websites that are still hidden below the surface of a search result, but could present a huge danger in the future. We provide a step-by-step guide to an online reputation audit in Wild West 2.0.

How can a person or company be proactive in preventing online attacks?

David Thompson: The first step toward preventing online attack is simply to live a good life, run a good business, and be positive. Positive people tend to attract fewer problems, online and off.

In the Internet age, businesses need to be especially pro-active about customer service; any unsatisfied customer can become a lightning rod for criticism of your company. Not long ago, one student created national news when he criticized a towing company and got tens of thousands of Facebook "fans" for his position; the same can happen to you. Stay on top of customer service, closely monitor social media for references to your business that might be the first signs of a future storm.

If an attack has damaged a reputation online, how can it be restored?

David Thompson: If possible, identify the source. Sometimes an online problem can be resolved by fixing the underlying offline dispute. Other times, an attacker is dedicated or can't be found. In those cases, the best thing to do is to build as much positive and neutral content as possible. Small businesses often have an advantage in that they have hundreds (or even thousands) of happy customers---gently and politely encourage them to review your business or share their experiences online. Other attacks are more serious and require professional remediation.

Despite the problems online, should business people and individuals still embrace the positive power of the internet?

David Thompson: Of course! You will be discussed online whether you use the Internet or not, so there's no way to "opt-out" of Internet discussion. The best you can do is to embrace the best parts of the Internet and encourage others to do the same. Be a positive role model by being positive and respectful online. Over time there has been a slow trend toward politeness and decorum online; you can be part of that trend.

What is next for David Thompson?

David Thompson: Privacy is the next frontier. Too much information is available about private individuals -- all too often, it is possible to find online their name, address, credit score, phone number, family members, and even their credit information. This information is empowering stalkers, scammers, spammers, domestic assailants, and more. It's time for people to take back control of their privacy. For small business owners and managers, it is especially important to be able to control the separation between personal and professional lives; work should not follow them home. We're launching products like MyPrivacy.com and PrivacyDefender.net to help people take back control.


My book review of Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier by Michael Fertik and David Thompson.

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