Sue Scheff: Net Users Wake Up To Price of Indiscretion by Emma Page

keyboard.jpgNew Zealanders are employing “reputation protection” companies to eliminate inappropriate content about them on internet sites such as Facebook, fearing it could damage their employment or dating prospects.

Dubbed “digital housekeeping”, the online clean-up is one of the issues trend-spotters say will emerge in 2008 as the public wakes up to the potential dangers of social sites, blogs and online reviews.

American company Reputation Defender is spearheading the trend and has five Kiwi customers on its books. Director Michael Fertik says four of them are paying the company US$9.95 a month to undertake detailed internet searches hunting for inappropriate, hurtful or inaccurate information and negotiating its removal if required.

Fertik says customers mainly use the service to ensure they impress employers who routinely check social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace before going ahead with job interviews. But many clients are also concerned about potential dates digging up dirt that could damage a blossoming relationship.

In New Zealand, recruitment agencies are running online background searches.

“It’s becoming incredibly common,” says Julie Cressey, organisational development manager for Madison Recruitment. Facebook is one of the common sites her agency checks, using it to see who potential employees network with.

Cressey says expressing your personality online is fine but the red flag comes out for those posting “inappropriate photos” or making “outlandish commentary”.

New Zealand-based public speaker and author of Reputation Branding Hannah Samuel says people need to be educated about the long-term effects of internet content especially young people and their parents, who are often blissfully unaware of the real consequences of the virtual world.

Internet users can at least control what sites they join and what they post about themselves.

Samuel’s checklist includes asking how parents, employers or a potential life partner would feel about the material and: “would I cringe in embarrassment or be ashamed if it appeared again?”

But once material is online, removing it becomes difficult.

“Nothing is secret and whatever you put out there can stay out there forever,” says Eaden McKee, director of web development company Webforce.

Fertik says Reputation Defender staff have a “broad suite of solutions available”, from asking for content to be removed to legal action.

And internet users are taking the initiative themselves, in some cases voluntarily shutting down their online profiles. In what has been dubbed “Facebook suicides”, some Facebook users leave notes or give their friends one final “poke” before leaving their profiles behind. The Facebook Mass Suicide Club website says: “Fed up with Facebook? Don’t like having your info shared with the world? … Have you ever thought about just deleting your account and freeing yourself? If Facebook is controlling and consuming your life then this is a group for you.”

McKee says individuals or businesses can use Google Alerts to notify them when any relevant material is posted.

But experts agree the best protection is not posting inappropriate pictures or comments in the first place.