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Spinning the Web:
The Realities of Online Reputation Management


Nicholas Carroll
Date: February 17, 2003
Article first published by
Russian version
Annotated: March 3, 2003


"Online reputation management" is reminiscent of the political term "spin control." However the Internet is not traditional media, and opportunities for controlling one’s reputation are quite different – in theory unlimited, but in practice limited by an almost inherent lack of focus, and the countervailing weight of mainstream media.


In the beginning, there was email, available to a restricted group of mostly academics via ARPAnet. (Bitnet came later, Usenet much later.) In that milieu of individuals, either you were eminent enough to be universally known, or you were not.

In the former case, your reputation was probably fixed. If you were an unknown, your reputation rested almost entirely on what you yourself distributed. Helpful, hateful, technically sophisticated or utterly inept, readers soon had a make on each other – to the extent people cared to reveal their true nature.

With the discovery that emails could be threaded, discussion groups arose, and reputations were formed more quickly.

Those lists expanded to include Usenet – with a parallel spread of bulletin boards – and were later emulated on the Web. As is still true today on pseudo-private forums such as chat rooms or password-needed discussion groups, people revealed their nature surprisingly often, though with the larger groups, reputations were less fixed. Even more, reputation began with what you posted, including flames. (Flaming began almost immediately in ARPAnet email, and modern Web-based discussion groups are little different.) So even before the Web, Usenet was affecting the reputations of individuals, and starting to affect organizations and agendas.

The initial years of the Web continued to show that free-wheeling expression. People revealed the most startling details of their past, photographs of their children, etc. I suspect that the "Wow, no cops!" initial reaction to the Internet created a subconscious assumption of "no criminals." (Meanwhile, companies like AOL were witnessing sex chat that made flames look tame.)


With the web came serious ecommerce. Well, actually, what came first was the amateurish attempts of mom-and-pop businesses to flog their wares and services on the Web. Many did surprisingly well. From bed-and-breakfast joints to custom fishing equipment, these naive beginners simply told it as they knew it in plain HTML, showed what they had to sell in images, and surprisingly often, succeeded.

Big business discovering the Web was a completely absurd affair.

It was particularly ludicrous to observe the certain failure of the travel industry’s initial efforts to parlay a traditional sales model of print/air advertising – followed by telephone or face-to-face contact – onto their Web sites.

The travel industry, from airlines to hotels to car rental agencies, has traditionally depended on extremely "fluid" pricing to generate its profit margins. In their standard modus operandi, the closer the customer was physically, the more hotels and rental car agencies would charge them. There are more precise strategies, such as airlines putting the screws to short-notice travellers, usually business people – or offering discounts to low-income or repeat customers – but a bulk of profit margins came from demanding full "rack rate" of those in immediate need.

The trouble was, their sales model depended on face-to-face contact, buttressed by the charm or pushiness of the sales person, or at least a telephone conversation, with prospective customers who are usually too polite to hang up on the sales person.

And here, suddenly, came the Web – where credible writing was king, and where travel agent hype met the awesome power of the "Back" button. On this playing field, "sales collateral", a.k.a. bushwa, was promptly and derisively named "brochureware."

And indeed, why should brochureware have sold anything? Tests of the human ability to detect lying routinely return to a curious truth: when test subjects are given mixed messages – by eye, facial expression, or body posture – they begin to reject the cues, often with disgust, and begin to concentrate on the logic and credibility of what the speaker is saying. On the Web, customers were faced with no message – other than words and usually superfluous graphics. So they concentrated on the words.

To the salesman, this is a cruel world indeed. The warm handshake, the engaging gaze, the practiced body language, the seamless integration of body language and sales patter – all are wasted.

In the end, it came down to the ugly scenario of price competition, where the travel industry actually had to tell the public what the service cost, right online – and the companies that cut to the chase soonest, were the first to regain their reputations.

By contrast, catalogers "got it" right away. They were slow coming to the Web, because direct marketers are cautious, and didn’t throw money in programmers’ laps until they understood the medium. But they certainly understood reputation management.

L.L. Bean came to the Web with an impeccable reputation of 90 years of quality goods, excellent service, and unconditional guarantees.

SeaEagle came to the Web with an mixed reputation as a manufacturer of low-cost inflatable boats. To the yachting crowd they were downscale, to the recreational user they were excellent value.

Regardless, both Bean and SeaEagle played it the way they always had before the Web: show what you’re selling, tell what it costs, guarantee it 100%, and answer the phone. And if the visitor has any doubt about their responsiveness, it is quickly dispelled when they astonishingly find a toll-free telephone number on the home page.

Thus the L.L. Bean’s home page quickly confirms their off-line reputation.

SeaEagle, less known, played it more aggressively, placing their toll-free number on the top of the home page, and developing a series of photo galleries and videos showing the durability of their boats (much like the highly credible and popular Timex watch TV commercials of the 1950’s: "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.").

And both companies succeeded, as the Fortune 500 foundered, and the dot-bombs sank beneath the waves.

All told, in the world of ecommerce, reputation management is extremely easy, simply because so many are doing it badly. In fact it is fairly easy to go from no reputation to a good one merely by selling a good product and treating customers well.

(I am overlooking email spammers here, since they have no reputation other than pond scum, and probably never will. Not that they care – for any given product or service, they make their money on the 0.00001% of the target audience that does not despise them.)


noun., the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person - Merriam-Webster,

Outside of ecommerce, the Web is presently a fairly weak means of enhancing one’s reputation or agenda, because it provides no means for massive, coherent, "on message" propaganda.

Edward Berneys wrote in his 1923 classic of opinion manipulation, Crystallizing Public Opinion, that in the 1920s, Thomas Paine’s American Revolution bombshell Common Sense would have no chance of molding public opinion by the mere act of publishing and hand-to-hand distribution.

100 years after the revolution, with America grown from 13 states to 1/3rd of a continent, Abraham Lincoln was accused of cannily redefining America as a nation rather than a confederation of states while giving the Gettysburg Address.

So even fewer words turned the opinion of a much greater population. However Lincoln had a few things going for him that Paine did not. The country in fact was in process of becoming a nation; he was the moral leader of the North, as well as president; in Lord Curzon’s comment, the Gettysburg Address was one of "... the three supreme examples of eloquence in the English language"; and not least, the newspapers all reprinted it.

Naysayers might point to "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" to show that both idea and reputation can spread by the Internet alone, but in fact that paper received tremendous leverage from mainstream media, for several reasons.

First, users had already started turning against Microsoft, the tech columnists had started bashing them, and the Feds were building a monopoly case. Second, it was a "made for media" David-and-Goliath story, with Eric Raymond adroitly playing it out as "Obi Wan Kenobi vs the Evil Empire." Third, Raymond is broadly considered a highly effective publicist by many in mainstream media: he responds promptly to media inquiries, answers thoughtfully, and – in media lingo – "gives good quote."

Not including Raymond in this – I don’t know him well enough to form an opinion – I have yet to see a publicity hound gain prominence through the Internet alone. Every one I know has augmented Internet posts with media savvy, networking, personal emails, phone calls, and pressing the flesh. (Kissing babies is still a talent reserved to politicians.)

Perhaps less obvious, it is equally difficult to spread disinformation on a grand scale.

Hate campaigns are surprisingly unsuccessful with the masses. Certainly hate sites attract the like-minded, and for awhile got good mainstream media attention. But again, the "Back" button. On the Web there is always another "channel." The ethnic slaughters in the wake of Yugoslavia’s disintegration were largely blamed on inflammatory talk radio – and the absence of contrary opinion.

On the Web, there is no booming, charismatic, monopolistic voice of the talk show host. Pictures may tell, but in the end words do the talking, and on the Web there are many voices doing that talking. It is the difference between radio host Rush Limbaugh’s hypnotic hold over rural areas of America, and his status as a figure of fun wherever radio audiences have an alternative of major radio stations – including more intelligent, rational radio commentary.

Likewise the U.S. government’s "War on Drugs" nonsense could never have spread through the Web; it took the complicity of thousands upon thousands of deadline-driven mainstream journalists carelessly repeating government propaganda (that the man-on-the-street overtly accepts, but does not really believe).

A blogger may suffer deadline frenzy, but a blogger is not exactly tuned to the concept of publishing nonsense simply because it comes from a government source.

In a similar vein, at present it would probably be impossible to spread a false "oil shortage" story through the Internet, as the American oil companies and mainstream media did in 1973. In fact the Internet would probably demolish such propaganda in days. In 1973, it was not until months later that a merchant marine officer told me how his oil supertanker had been held off the New Jersey coast for six weeks at the height of the "oil shortage."

Today, he would have emailed Matt Drudge. So would have refinery workers from all over the U.S., telling how their storage tanks were filled to the bursting point. Far from supporting the powers that be, venues such as Yahoo! would be confronted with the choice of headlining Drudge as well as mainstream media – or losing a chunk of their credibility.

Exposing Corruption

Conversely – returning to individual players – an individual or organization’s power to demolish their own reputation has been vastly enhanced by the Web. Verisign went from an almost unknown entity to one of the most hated Web companies in little more than a year, referred to in discussion as "Veriscum," "Verislime," and other less savory names.

In decades of monopoly arrogance, national and local telephone companies failed to achieve anywhere near the same level of loathing (even though national long-distance phone companies’ subcontractors invented slamming, and many regional telephone companies aid and abet cramming).

It would be difficult to find a reason other than Verisign’s own actions and manner of dealing with customers ... with the word spreading through discussion. (The InterNIC, while it offered wretched customer service, at least had the shield of being geekish, and no one expected good customer service from geeks.)

Usenet archives probably remain the best investigative tool for establishing a bad character’s bad side. I’ve been startled how often a purportedly sincere if misguided character reveals himself to be a monster of hatred in old Usenet posts. And if they were smart enough to avoid that, why, like as not some public-spirited citizen has done it for them. Ditto organizations; if your car is a lemon, you’ll find it trashed on Usenet.

Of course "" sites are still around. I don’t think they have the power they used to; the mainstream media no longer covers them, and in any case enough of them are so kooky that the genre has become somewhat tainted.

On the other hand, some more sober "contrarian" sites are excellent, like They, and the "scambuster" genre of web sites, have surely benefited from the increasing precision of the better search engines. When they name names, the search engines quickly turn up negative information, much as one can find on Usenet.

The Evolution of Online Opinion

"Reputation management" has many connotations on the Internet. I suspect the term itself hails from a 1998 Jakob Neilsen column on "reputation managers."

Many of these reputation managers involve rating methods, from’s Web of Trust, to eBay’s ratings (and huge anti-fraud department), to’s highly-evolved Meta Moderation system.

These seem important to devotees of those web sites, and techies in particular are entranced by voting schemes. However, compared to the vast readership of a reputation manager like the Associated Press, with tens of millions of readers, or newscaster Paul Harvey, with enormous credibility and over 10 million devoted listeners, they are but a drop in the bucket, promising though they may be.

This stands to reason. Mainstream media, by the "permission of the marketplace", is for practical purposes a push technology – unless people start throwing their morning paper in the trash unread, and put the radio and TV in the closet.

To form an opinion based on reading Epinions or Slashdot takes a lot more work than soaking up a newspaper headline or drooling in front of the six o’clock news. On Epinions you have to read the various reviews and weigh them against each other. On Slashdot one has to read the original article, and think, or at least wade through the posts.

The consequence is that mainstream media still dominates public opinion – and reputation molding – because it is brief, consistent, and seemingly coherent. It’s the difference between a floodlight and a laser. The floodlight may illuminate more broadly, but the coherent, parallel light of a laser punches through steel.

The collapse of the Estrada presidency in the Philippines is not to my mind a proof that the Web, or wireless text messaging, is about to shift that dominance in the immediate future – since other wireless-organized demonstrations have been as chaotic as the Filipino demonstrations were focused. Reasonable enough – in LDCs the social dynamics are quite different from G-8 nations suffering massive information overload. (You have to live through a good uprising or two to really appreciate how fast revolt becomes a national mania.)

I think this balance will alter, despite growing backlash from mainstream media, though I have utterly no idea how. I don’t think we can look to Google turning itself into an opinion-molder, "Pagerank" notwithstanding. A Blogworld? The-Wireless-Web-to-the-max? Peer-to-peer? Maybe, maybe.

Or maybe something will come out of nowhere, much as the Web seemed to. Perhaps like HTML itself, it will be one little inspired piece of coding, such as bi-directional links, that transforms the Internet into a place where reputations are made as easily as they are harmed.

The chaos of the bazaar may spread a meme – but not a consistent image. The online medium (or protocol, or social model) that defines reputation will not be as narrow as a laser beam. Yet it must have the attribute that moves mountains: the convergence of opinion.

One might hope that such a convergence leads on to the amplification of intelligence, rather than mere herd behavior, and lifts humanity to a new level of reasoning.



Nicholas Carroll has a background in code, foreign affairs, mainstream media, marketing and the Internet. He is an information architect with Hastings Research. He can be reached at .


Re: "reputation managers"
1. In a post by Brian Dear, he indicated he had used the term in a meeting with Esther Dyson in 1996.

2. From an email from Lucas Gonze,, the term may have originated even earlier: "The term as we use it now came out of a tiny portion of the security community; was one of the stalwarts, though they’ve now redirected their efforts to enterprise decision making."
© 2003 Hastings Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

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