A few years ago, Emile and I briefly worked on the idea of creating a dating reputation site, whereby you'd be able to search our engine for the name of your date and read comments left by people who had previously been on a date with that person. As you can imagine, there were a host of problems right from the start that made the site difficult to execute. The obvious issue of trying to ensure the comments you were viewing were for the right "John Smith" you had a date with that evening was just one of the many, many issues we tried to tackle. Privacy issues were another.
But there were also a number of interesting things we came across that we didn't expect. When we floated the idea to several people in the digital identity industry as well as several people who study online ethics, one person's comments struck us as odd. She stated that such a site should include the ability to control every piece of information about the person being commented on. In fact, she truly believed that everyone should have full control of their own reputation online. This made no sense to me. In the offline world, a person does not have control over their reputation. Sure, you can act in a way that improves your reputation, but ultimately your reputation is controlled by everyone who knows you. It's something that can be tweaked and adjusted based on your own behavior, but full control? I don't think so.
So why should the online world be any different? Just as a poor reputation can cause you to lose out on a job opportunity (or a date) in the offline world, the online world can have the same affect. With one exception - there is no central database of "reputation" that people in the offline world can go to. Prior to the world wide web, you had to connect to someone who knew a person to get their opinion - and then it was just one person's opinion. Today, Google, Yahoo!, MSN and more offer a central database of information on people. And it is a database that doesn't forget, forgive or die. That old friendship that soured five years ago could be forgotten as lives moved in different directions. But the nasty comment you left on your blog and later regretted - Google never forgets that thanks to the magic of caching - even if you delete it.
It would be interesting to have two types of search results that I could view when I was searching a person - what they wanted me to see, and what the search engine thought was the best overall represenation of that person. When I search for John Doe, another button perhaps would be added to Google's home page under the search box: Google Search, I'm Feeling Lucky, and...."John Doe's Results", where I see the results that John wants the world to see when they search on him.
In the end, the online world operates a lot like the offline world when it comes to reputation. Just like an offline jerk can begin to improve his reputation by being kinder to his fellow human beings, you can massage your online reputation by adding connections and content that pushes the past further into the past (and in this case, further down in the search engine results).
You do have control over your online reputation - to a point. A recent article by Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin is a good example of how a person can do just that.
By the way, we never launched the dating reputation site. In the end, we felt that unless we required everyone who left a comment on their date to use their verified real identity, it wouldn't be of much use. Unless the goal was to ruin your date's reputation.