Say something stupid on the Internet, and it can cost you—cost so much, in fact, that a whole industry has sprung up to help save you from your own gaffes: advice books, software, online tools and comprehensive web-monitoring/ web-scrubbing services aimed at helping to undo whatever it is you regret having said or done.
So pervasive is people's desire to wipe their online slates clean, that the new Batman movie imagines a program called Clean Slate that does exactly that.
The Seattle Times, in an article about this phenomenon, says media consulting firm DIA/Kelsey estimates that $2.2 billion will be spent in 2012 on so-called reputation management tools, including ones that heal self-inflicted wounds.
The Times also cites some recent gaffes that have gotten tweeters into trouble, including ones from Miss Seattle. After Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn won the title in March, it was discovered that she previously had had said some snippy things to say about the town.
"Ew, I'm seriously hating Seattle right now," she had tweeted in December. "Can't stand cold rainy Seattle and the annoying people."
The annoying people of Seattle were only more annoyed, and Ahn was forced to apologize and recant. ABC News quoted her telling a local radio station: "Those tweets by no means reflect my actual opinions or views."
How much grief might she have saved herself if she had been able to go back and erase the offending remarks? That's possible to do, say experts, if the sender still controls the venue where the comments first appeared—his or her own Facebook page, for example, or own Twitter account. But once a post takes wing--gets picked up by others and is propagated to other sites--the task of eradicating it becomes no less daunting than expunging false or hurtful information posted about you by others.
Your gaffe becomes part of what author Matt Ivester calls "your permanent record." His book "lol…OMG!" tells college students and others how to undo (or to avoid making) mistakes they may later regret—embarrassments, say, that do permanent damage their employment prospects.
Anyone trying to do damage control, Ivester and others say, should consider the following steps:
|Take Inventory of Yourself|
You have to know what's out there, says Ivester, before you can start fixing it. Google yourself and see what comes up. Do the same with Yahoo!, Bing and other popular search engines. After you've inventoried what strike you as the trouble spots, ask a friend to go through the same exercise: he may see things you've missed. "We all have blind-spots," says Iverson. A friend may view as dangerous some tweet you find benign. To protect yourself from being blind-sided, set up an alert that will notify you anytime your name shows up in new online content. Google offers such a tool for free.
|Clean up Content You Control|
Go through the online content you control and remove from it anything you no longer want to share or that strikes you as newly dangerous or inappropriate. Cleanse your blog, Twitter stream and Facebook page. Where you find potential time-bombs in content you do not control, contact the owners and politely ask them please to remove it. You can find them by using godaddy.com.
|Create New Positive Content|
If you can't expunge everything that's old and negative, says Bryce Tom, CEO of Metal Rabbit Media, the next best thing is to do is overwhelm and suppress it by creating new, positive content. Bryce's company helps create such content. The new material will show up higher in search results for your name. You can create, for example, a new webpage about your good works and positive accomplishments. You can ask friends to post positive content about you on their pages. By cross-linking all of these, says Iverster, you insure these love-letters to yourself will show up high in search results.
|Prune Your Friends|
Be sure you know what's public and what's private on the sites you use, says Ivester. On Facebook, prune questionable friends. Organize remaining ones into groups, according, say, to their trustworthiness or their area of interest. Doing this presents an opportunity to re-think what you're comfortable sharing online, whom you trust and whom you don't. How controversial do you want to be? Moving forward, share content only with those Friends you trust and deem appropriate.
|Hire a Professional Scrubber|
Depending on how many gaffes you've committed (or how short you may be on time or patience), you can turn the problem over to a professional. Reputation.com, for example, has added a new service called myPrivacy that constantly scours the web, removing what you want removed. A facial recognition component allows it to find photos of you, whether or not they've been tagged with your name. Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, says that as recently as two years ago he routinely told people that, with enough elbow grease, they could pretty much police the web themselves. "I stopped saying that," he says, "because the problem has become so difficult that you can't solve it by yourself anymore."
|Hire a PR Professional|
About the services he provides (which include gaffe-fixing) Bryce Tom of Metal Rabbit Media, says, "We're a little different. We come at it from a PR angle." Tom cultivates relationships with editors at Wikipedia, so that when unflattering or embarrassing information about a client appears there, he can attempt to persuade them to alter or remove it. "Typically our client is a more notable person," he says, "someone whose reputation dictates their livelihood—a high-end executive, say." Though it's completely possible for an individual to try to change his own Wikipedia entry, it's also easy to run afoul of the site's rules and protocols. If you get it wrong the first time, says Tom, Wikipedia ever after regards you with suspicion. "That limits your leverage the second time around."