Michelle sent me an e-mail. I’d met her when she acted in one of my short films, but I’d lost touch with her when she went to graduate school to get a degree in international relations. All I knew was she had entered public service.
Would I remove her credit for the film on IMDB? she asked.
If you Googled her name, you’ll find her past odd jobs pop up, including photos of her during a sideline gig as a burlesque cabaret dancer. But now she wanted to reinvent herself from a free-spirited bohemian into a strait-laced think-tank intellectual — and was going through the process of cleaning up her search results, one by one.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But the idea of reinvention powers American culture, such as his novel, “The Great Gatsby,” where a man tries to transform himself from humble origins, only to discover he can’t escape his demons of longing and inadequacy — no matter how many millions he makes, how many possessions he acquires, or how much he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio.
Beyond fiction, Madonna became a world icon, based on her constant change in visual image, going from East Village club kid to Hollywood siren to kinky burlesque queen to New Age mother with every album release. Meanwhile, her frenemy, Gwyneth Paltrow, is in the midst of a transformation herself, into a Martha Stewart for the downtown NYC/Hamptons set, complete with a lifestyle website and cookbooks.
On the West Coast, Angelina Jolie transformed from a tattooed Hollywood wild child who carried her ex-husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in a vial on a necklace around her neck, to a humanitarian and card-carrying member of the prestigious Center for Foreign Relations. Even early has-beens, like ’90s hip-hop star M.C. Hammer, found a second act as a relevant tech investor.
Like these celebrities, Michelle was looking for a fresh beginning, trading in combat boots for nude pumps, picking up a conservative-chic wardrobe at Nordstrom’s that would make Kate Middleton envious, and stripping the platinum blond-and-black “skunk” stripes from her hair to revert back to its natural honey-blonde color.
She did everything right to segue into her second act, laying down a solid foundation rooted in education, and garnering a series of enviable internships for politicians and non-profits. But, for Michelle, there was one major problem: Google.
Before she decided to emerge as a budding Madeleine Albright, she already laid a digital trail at odds with the conservative, strait-laced image she now tries to project. And that electronic history, which now litters the all-important first page of Google, is proving harder to remove than her tattoos.
You never know what’ll appear online. Google a neighbor’s name and his recent foreclosure might pop up, which beyond damaging his reputation, can hurt his chance of a promotion at work. Or consider a niece, applying to medical school. She should be concerned with her profile — complete with Facebook vacation pictures, a couple of driving citations and opinionated tweets — and how it might look to an admissions committee.
How forever haunted we’ll be by these digital trails depends on how fiercely we’re willing to create and guard a positive reputation.
Michelle did some things right. She “rebranded” her social media, adding positive pictures, while deleting old posts, and created a blog to emphasize her policy smarts. She also contacted old contacts, like me, asking to them to remove her name from sites and services associated with the past.
These are the easiest, and most immediate ways, to limit the past from impacting the future. Open accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, among others, to push down the bad results. It won’t wipe things clean, but if you can control the first page of results, you can limit the number of people who learn about the skeletons in your closet.
But removing entries takes an understanding of Web. Since local newspapers often publish minor law enforcement offenses — like underage alcohol consumption — it can last in Google long after the missteps have righted. If you run across something, simply contact the publisher. If the website doesn’t have a contact page listed, a webmaster can often be found by looking up the registration of the domain. It often lists an e-mail or phone number, and a polite call to them, with an explanation of the situation, often removes the offending item.
But Michelle discovered that some sites are so old that nobody can take down the pages. Repeated requests simply go unanswered. In these cases, the next step is to search for the company that hosts the website. If the material is deemed sensitive or slanderous, hosts will usually pull the material quickly. But if it’s within the realm of free speech, there’s no guarantee it’ll be removed.
If the host is located in say, China, where companies rarely comply with the law, another option is to contact Google and have the page omitted from its search results. If it can’t be found, it’s nearly as good as gone. But again, sensitive or slander material only.
When articles are sensitive, it can still take time to have them removed from the results — just ask the countless victims of so-called “revenge porn,” girls who find naughty photos of them made public by disgruntled ex-boyfriends, alongside personal details and social media profiles. When the Internet and a permissive sexual culture converge, the most damaging result is often a sullied permanent reputation that can haunt a victim for a lifetime.
These women often find themselves dealing with the repercussions long after the offense, when potential employers, and even boyfriends, Google them names to stumble upon the past. Holly Jacobs, for example, told XoJane she had no legal recourse when her ex-boyfriend posted sexy pictures she had sent him during relationship.
“I tried to do damage control on my own. I schooled myself on the Google algorithm, created positive material under my name that would push the negative search results down, filed hundreds of DMCA takedown notices, and started to get to know some of the porn site webmasters so well that one in Russia found a lawyer for me in Miami and offered to buy me dinner the next time he was in the area,” she wrote. “After working around the clock for a month straight, writing my dissertation during the day and cleaning up my search results at night, I finally got all of the negative material down.”
Jacobs followed the advice of business consultants by uploading pictures and creating profiles and websites to push the problems down. She also asked sites, one by one, to remove any offending material. But in her case, it didn’t work. Within a fortnight, Jacobs said, her pictures and details were found on 300 more sites. In the end, she decided to change her name and reinvent herself as a lawyer and activist to fight revenge porn, appearing on CNN, NBC, and Fox News, and lobbying California to pass laws against the practice.
Her case shows how difficult it is to fight the digital nature of a sullied reputation, even when the results are slanderous, sensitive and life-ruining. The Internet is compiling a permanent record of our past, for all to see. And it can have major consequences in our work and personal lives.
According to a study by Microsoft and Cross-Tab Research, four-in-five human-resources professionals in the U.S. say they check the online reputation of candidates, adding that it was one of the top-two factors when they consider potential employees.
What the Web says about us is gaining in importance. According to the study, online reputation accounted for one-in-five firings, and the denial of 16 percent of health insurance applications, 14 percent college entrance submissions, and 15 percent of mortgage rejections. Yet a surprisingly number of people still doesn’t believe online reputation can impact their offline lives.
“People would like to draw clear delineations between their personal and professional lives online, but the fact is that these lines are blurring,” Julie Inman-Grant, Microsoft’s director of Internet privacy and safety, said in the report. “Our study found that HR professionals are regularly using information about candidates found on the Internet, and this can have significant repercussions.”
That digital trail doesn’t easily die off and fade into cyber-nothingness, so reputation management has become big business. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft give standard advice, but sometimes, when a clean-up is especially hard, services such as Integrity Defenders, can help to scrub a tarnished mess clean.
But these services aren’t cheap. Integrity Defenders, for example, charges over $600 to make over the first page of a Google result for one search term. Michelle doesn’t have the resources to hire a professional, but she doesn’t need them, either. She doesn’t have a criminal conviction to cover up, or nude pictures to remove, so she simply needs to create a “personal brand” to realign her past to her chosen career.
Michelle should look at what makes her unique from others in her field, and focus on conveying that in an authentic way, on social media and her blog. Since public policy is a conservative field, not known for its creative flair or quirky expression, Michelle can spin and embrace the hallmarks of her creative past in a proper way, without having to hide it entirely.
It turns out her experience in theater, dance and burlesque often make for humorous ice-breakers in nerve-wracking interviews, and people at D.C. think-tanks are fascinated when they find her about her past as an actress. Her keen eye for fashion and adornment also stands out in a sea of staid Ann Taylor suits. But more importantly, when her bosses discovered her flair for comedic timing, an ability to read an audience, and turn on the charm when needed, they used her as a secret weapon to turn dense, often boring, policy presentations into lively, entertaining stories. The key to her success as a humanitarian, policy maker and non-profit worker lies in highlighting that twist, and not completely hiding it.
Our digital profile affects every life transaction we take, from school to hiring to dating. There is no escaping it. In this digital age, we can’t fly below the radar. James Gatz wouldn’t be able to pull off Gatsby today. All it takes to dig up any past is a couple of taps of a keyboard.
Michelle’s success won’t be how well she, or her online reputation, conforms to the image of a policy wonk in the Beltway. It’ll be how she uses her unique talents, whether she developed them in the past, or in the future. ♦