Reputation management services

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2011

If I were a bright-eyed huckster with a sharp suit and few morals (or should that be fewer?), online reputation management would be one of the business models I’d be thinking about putting into action. For as they say in Yorkshire, “where there’s muck, there’s brass”… quite a lot of brass, in fact, if this NYT piece is to be believed: advertises an annual membership fee of $99, but Mr. Fertik said that costs could easily reach $10,000 for a prominent person who wanted to make a scandal harder to discover through Internet searches. (He said Mr. Weiner was probably out of luck: “It would take a long time and more money than he has.”)

For the detective work, the costs escalate quickly. Michael J. Hershman, president of the Fairfax Group, a risk and reputation management firm, said burying negative information could cost $500 to $1,000, but persuading search engines to expunge incorrect information could cost several thousand dollars more. Getting that information removed from aggregating Web sites like Intellius or PeopleFinder can add another couple of thousand dollars.

Costs can spike into five figures when a firm is asked to find the people responsible for the defamatory blog post or Twitter message. “If you’re going to hire a firm like ours to find that person, it’s hit or miss,” Mr. Hershman said. “We can’t guarantee success. It’s not as easy as going to the search engines.”

There’s a pretty obvious parallel here with the UK-centric phenomenon of super- and hyper-injunctions; the traditional privacy of the rich and privileged is becoming harder and more difficult to maintain in the face of network culture. (This is, if I understand it correctly, the intended meaning of the old saw about “information wanting to be free”, rather than as a dubious ideological justification for content piracy.)

It remains to be seen whether power and money will win the battle in the long run; it probably won’t surprise regular readers to know that I rather hope it doesn’t, because that would mean the rich and powerful would be obliged to think about the potential fallout from their indiscretions before committing them, or face the consequences like everyone else.

The flipside is that life-damaging falsehoods can proliferate with equal ease, deliberately or accidentally, and that corrections to erroneous reports rarely have the same high profile or link-back rate as the initial reports themselves. That said, the nature of network culture suggests that concerted efforts to publicise truth and retractions are likely to be just as effective as deliberate smears or falsehoods propagated with the same degree of effort. As more and more raw data and evidence becomes part of the online ecosystem, it should in theory be possible to defend the truth more effectively as time goes by… but that discounts the regrettable realities of confirmation bias. As so many sensitive topics demonstrate – from global-level biggies like climate science, all the way down to gender representation disparities in science fiction publishing – no amount of data will convince those who simply don’t want to be convinced.

At this point in my thought-train, it’s time to bring in that small yet hardy perennial of geek-futurist topics, the reputation currency. These are still in their infancy, and as such are very open to gaming and logrolling; Amazon review ratings, for instance, vary wildly in their utility from product to product, though the eBay system is a little more robust and trustworthy, provided one does one’s due diligence. But that’s the key, I suspect; in the same way that I think we have to take responsibility for regulating the behaviour of corporations by thinking carefully about where we spend our money and/or attention-time, I think it’s also down to us to make sure we only trust systems that are trustworthy.

Easier said than done, of course, as it would require a pretty fundamental shift in attitudes toward who is responsible for protecting us from the more miscreant members of the species. But there’s another topical example that provides a potential model for  a currency of trustworthiness, and that’s BitCoin. Only a trust currency would actually have to be a sort of mirror image of BitCoin, in that it would have to be completely transparent at the transaction level, with every exchange documented and verified by the cloud of peers. (Whether such a system could ever scale to a global or even national level is way beyond my limited grokking of cryptotech to grasp; it’s a subject I really need to dig into properly at my soonest opportunity.)

In the short- to medium-term, however, I think we can expect to see reputation management become an increasingly expensive and cut-throat theatre of business, alongside a broad swathe of attempts to reinstate the privilege of privacy using the statute books. With any luck, though, the continual exposure of politicians and celebrities as having the same suite of flaws and stupidities as the rest of us might eventually encourage us to look past the headlines and start asking the questions that really matter… namely what these people do when they’re actually at work on our dime.

Bill C’s Ministry Of Truthiness

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2011

You must have seen this one already, but just in case: Bill Clinton raises the idea of independent “agency for truth” to counter all the misinformation on the intertubes [via everywhere, but I got it from TechDirt].

The agency, Clinton said, would “have to be totally transparent about where the money came from” and would have to be “independent” because “if it’s a government agency in a traditional sense, it would have no credibility whatever, particularly with a lot of the people who are most active on the internet.”

“Let’s say the U.S. did it, it would have to be an independent federal agency that no president could countermand or anything else because people wouldn’t think you were just censoring the news and giving a different falsehood out,” Clinton said.

“That is, it would be like, I don’t know, National Public Radio or BBC or something like that, except it would have to be really independent and they would not express opinions, and their mandate would be narrowly confined to identifying relevant factual errors” he said. “And also, they would also have to have citations so that they could be checked in case they made a mistake. Somebody needs to be doing it, and maybe it’s a worthy expenditure of taxpayer money.”

Hmmm. File under “nice idea, but naive and completely impractical given that the authoritarian approach to truth is antithetical to the way the internet works”. Heck, you could make it as transparent as spun diamond, and there’d still be conspiracy theorists claiming that the secret chains of funding and misinformation were just brilliantly concealed. It’s a tricky post-modern conundrum which I suspect will only ever be solved some sort of universal realisation that checking things out for yourself is the route to the truth.

Which is to say it’ll probably never be solved at all for most people. Selah.

That said, this totally merits the use of a classic macro:


Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

OK, here are three interesting essays about science fiction and its relationship to reality we inhabit. I’ve got a lot of other stuff cluttering up my brain today, so I’ll leave it to you lot to do your own synthesis…

First of all, Roz Kaveney at The Guardian:

One problem with being a long-term reader of science fiction and fantasy is that you get blase about science itself because you have seen it all before. My sense of wonder was overloaded by the time I was 16; I am never going to get that rush again. Even major breakthroughs make me go ‘Whatever!’.


Another part of the problem is that we do, in fact, live in a world that is a collage of a lot of sci fi tropes – but, as the writer Neil Gaiman’s Second Law tells us: “All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.” It’s amazing that we have tiny mobile phones with which we can send photographs of masturbating walruses to our friends on the other side of the world, but less fabulous that you lose signal in a five-yard patch on the Hackney Road just as someone is telling you something important. One of the reasons why Dick and Ballard speak to our condition so well is that they saw the future and it was pretty rubbish.

Secondly, Damien Walter, also at The Guardian:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in? The neocons are going to save us from the Taliban – or is it the other way round … Every day it’s getting harder to tell one group of religious fundamentalists from another. Kate and Pete and Brad and Jen are in and out of love – but how’s your own marriage doing? The ConDem coalition is squaring off against old New Labour. No one believes this is representative democracy for a second but, gosh darn it, the theatre is so good we just can’t help watching, even while the real power is snatched by corporate actors behind the scenes.


For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction’s unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

If the outer world is flooded with fictions, then perhaps Ballard is right when he claims that “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads”. Maybe our inner world of dreams and imagination offers not merely escape, but our best way of finding truth in the confusing fictional landscape of modern reality.

And thirdly, Athena Andreadis, not at The Guardian:

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

What are you thinking?


Sarah Ennals @ 31-01-2010

Verification - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]

Hype and headlines: looking beyond the abstract

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2009

immigration hate-hype in a UK tabloid newspaperWe try our best here at Futurismic to look beyond the sensational aspects of the news and dig into the real implications. Over at his place, Charlie Stross dissects the latest alcohol and cancer risk stories as covered in the mainstream media, and points out why it’s important to do so:

Alas, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute keeps the actual text behind a paywall; which makes it hard for me to check this takedown by Junkfood Science. However, I feel the need to quote two chunks of that post (which you really ought to read):

… there was no dose response between the number of drinks the women consumed and their risk for all cancers. Women drinking no alcohol at all had higher incidences for all cancers than 95% of the drinking women. The actual incidents of all cancers was 5.7% among the nondrinkers. The cancer incidents were lower among the women drinking up to 15 drinks a week: 5.2% among those consuming ≤2 drinks/week; 5.2% of those drinking 3-6 drinks/week; and 5.3% among those drinking 7-14 drinks a week. [Table 1.]

In other words, women drinking as many as two drinks a day were associated with lower actual incidences of all cancers compared with the nondrinkers.

In other words, the abstract of the paper was radically at odds with the substance of the study’s findings.

In other words, good news doesn’t sell newspapers… nor say what certain groups may want us to hear.

One can’t help but wonder how much of this is to do with the way the state funds scientific research; Ceaser hears what is pleasing unto Ceaser, AMIRITE? I’m guessing a lab or body that consistently finds results opposite to the ones desired isn’t going to get so many gigs offered to it further down the line… which isn’t to accuse scientists of lying so much as to accuse the bureaucracy that surrounds science of making concessions to external forces. [image by secretlondon123]

But then I wonder if I’m slipping into the conspiracist paranoia of my youth again. Who can we trust to tell us truth? Does the new multiplicity of news sources with different ideological filters make this problem smaller or larger?

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