This one time my friend called me and goes, “Google my mom.”
I was like, “Google your mom?” and she goes, “Yeah, do it.”
The first search result was a link to a local district court. My friend’s mom had received a DUI a few years before, and hadn’t shared the unfortunate arrest with her daughter. Nor, it seemed, had she done much to bury the Internet evidence, a necessary task for almost everyone these days, whether they’ve got a record or whether they’ve just got an old blog that reveals too much about their personal lives.
This summer, the Wall Street Journal reported that Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) predicts “that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”
Owen Tripp, co-founder of Reputation Defender, said in a recent interview he thinks Schmidt was likely tongue-in-cheeking when he made that comment, but Tripp’s made a career of — and built a business for — helping people like my friend’s mom clean up some of their Internet history. (On the other side, Reputation Defender also helps those with little or no Web presence build a reputable online identity.)
Tripp, who graduated from Trinity in 2001, worked a job at eBay studying behavioral analytics (“a fancy way of saying what you can learn by how people use websites”). He learned what was learnable about people by the way they shopped, clicked, browsed, surfed. He and cofounder Michael Fertik were both interested and concerned about how kids were going to handle adulthood after youth on the Web.
It’s free at Reputation Defender’s site to do a search with the company’s specialized search engine, which is like a jacked-up Google. When I searched my own name, I found every address I’ve had since my first apartment, as well as my parents’ address in another state. All were attached to my name. This didn’t really worry me too much, but it was pretty surprising. And a lot of people do care that this information is (easily) findable, and not without good reason. (And think about how every time Facebook changes a privacy setting, a gazillion blogs and news sites explode into exclamation points and accusations that Mark Zuckerberg is trying to steal your identity.)
There are websites out there with public records of your arrests or pictures of your beer-pong trophies or blog posts written by your ex-BFF about what a son of a bitch you are, and so your control over how you look on the Internet is pretty limited. You can delete and untag your photos, but you can’t delete your friends’ photos or your public court documents.
What Reputation Defender does, though, is sign you up for sites like LinkedIn, the social networking site that people often consider the Facebook of the business world.
“A lot of people trust the content on LinkedIn,” Tripp says. “We’re going to do hundreds of sites like that, where we can post content that is about the story of your life. … For college kids, this is really important. Unfortunately, even for the most accomplished and most hardworking and high-potential students, the story of their life online right now is a collection of videos and photos which are demonstrating their college years.”
Tripp says most people don’t look past the first 10 results of a Google search. And “virtually nobody” clicks past the second page. The idea is to bury the bad and cultivate some good personal data that shoots to the top of the search list.
So, back to my friend’s mom’s legal trouble: Tripp considers the other things Mom could’ve been doing, like serving “on the school committee, or she could’ve been studying the question of why honeybees are dying, or any number of interesting topics. All of those are much more current and in line with who she is today.”
Tripp wants to make online personae more manageable for people, and as more and more information finds its way online, his company will have more places to bury the bad and more padding to prop up the good.
People come to Tripp’s company to “guard their most valuable asset: their names,” he says. “Without that, they don’t get new clients. Without that, they aren’t the kind of parent they want to be seen as. … People are perceived now on the basis of social media. We make those judgments in about 20 seconds. If you think about that, it’s a pretty remarkable transformation in our society.”