A pristine Google results page is the season's must-have online accessory. "Online reputation managers" offer to scrub your internet footprint of revealing pictures or embarrassing blog posts—for a hefty price. We are entering a brave new world of social media status differentiation!
The burgeoning field of online reputation management is essentially PR for normal people in an age of socially-networked micro-celebrity. The New York Times runs down the services offered by firms such as Reputation.com, which "offer to expunge negative posts, bury unfavorable search results and monitor a client's virtual image." (Their methods are kept rather ominously under wraps—like, maybe they've kidnapped a Google engineer's kid to use for leverage?) The ultimate goal is to make someone look sterling, through search engine optimization rather than the time-honored practice of bitching out tabloid editors.
Here are the kinds of people who utilize these services, which you could probably guess from the Times article's placement in the Sunday Styles section: A college student trying to erase debauched pictures of himself; a corporate lawyer trying to make partner; a psychologist trying to bury an old legal battle; Julia Allison, Gawker's favorite fameball, trying to bury, well, a lot of stuff. It's mostly professionals who can afford the $120-$600/year these services cost, and who are savvy enough to understand why it might be worth it. Now that college admissions officers routinely scour the Internet to judge applicants, maybe Reputation.com can bundle their service with an pricey SAT tutor and sell it to achievement-oriented parents.
But the Internet is populated by many, many people who are not very savvy—which is good for us!—and not very rich. (More than 80% of the U.S. is online.) These people do lots of dumb stuff on the Internet and are arguably more vulnerable to the digital stain that results than any of these people meticulously policing their online presence. It's hard to imagine the pictures of a condom dress Julia Allison once sent us have held her back all that much. But teachers get canned all the time for online antics they would have never engaged in if they had any idea how the Internet actually works, and job-killing criminal records are easier to dig up than ever. Is the ex-con trying to rebuild his life going to go out and hire the reputation management service he read about in the Times? (Not to mention the porn star whose real name gets leaked.)
There's the old chestnut that kids these days are ruining their chances of being president with all those beer-stained Facebook pictures. Nah. Just the kids whose parents aren't shelling out hundreds of dollars for online reputation management. We'll call it the Google Gap.
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