Can you wipe yourself from the web

A few weeks ago, somebody sent me a link to a website called WebMii that gathered together everything about me: photos, videos, social network profiles, news, blogs, links and documents. It was alarming to see it all gathered together in one place, but at the same time I felt dismayed: how little there seemed to be.

Of the six photos (there were more if you clicked through), one showed the actress Natalie Portman. Another had nothing to do with me. As for the videos, there were only two — though I know there are more out there. I clicked through to find them. There were none, but on the left of the page was a list headed “related people”. Two of the names were people I’ve interviewed. Others were famous, but I’d never met them. Others were entirely unfamiliar.

If anybody else looked up this page, they’d learn a fair bit about me, of which much would be incorrect, albeit fairly harmless. (For instance, they might conclude that I am “related” in some way to Jonathan Ross, though that’s only by watching him on telly.) Returning to the first page, I discovered that my Webmii score was 4.2. Was this good? Not according to WebMii. It represented my online visibility — calculated by combining my relevance on any given web page with the page’s rank on Google. The top score is 10. To put that in context, Naomi Campbell scored 8.0 last week, the Queen scored 8.4 and Barack Obama 9.0.

I wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or pleased by my relatively low score. Sure, a part of me wants to be popular and interesting and well known, but I’ve become fairly paranoid over the past few years about the amount of information out there on us all and avoided the temptation to set up pages on Bebo, MySpace or Facebook. Only recently, and slightly reluctantly, did I get on to Twitter.

That Twitter account was to prove useful for work, but I still have reservations, and they’ve only been strengthened this week by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he said in an interview. He predicts (and shouldn’t he know?) that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown their cyber pasts. His comments remind me of those made by a pair of private detectives I interviewed recently.

The otherwise low-lying Duncan Mee (Webmii score: 3.7) and Cameron Gowlett (2.6) featured prominently in a documentary,Erasing David, that drew attention to the alarming amounts of information out there — not all of it online, but most of it digital and easily uploaded. In the film, a man named David Bond deleted his Facebook page but Mee and Gowlett retrieved it easily, and much more. This helped them to piece together even more information on Bond from other sources that require elementary details such as date of birth and addresses.

“A lot of people are giving information away voluntarily,” Gowlett says. “Look how many young children are giving up their whole lives on Facebook and Twitter — everything, their date of birth, the names of relatives and friends, where they live, when they’re going on holiday.”

For the investigators, such haemorrhaging of information is providing plenty of work: for example, details gathered from oil company employees and their families in some countries results in a high danger of kidnap.

People should be aware, said Mee, that what seems like a chat between two people is really a global chat that remains available forever. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to put up things like political views. Those change over time, and you may be left exposed.”

Gowlett offers an extreme example. “In Rwanda, people had ‘Tutsi’ or ‘Hutu’ on their ID cards — information that was given freely at the time they were making those ID cards. But when they arrived at checkpoints that was what determined if you got hacked to death with a machete or not.” On the net, we upload entire family trees: just imagine what the Nazis could have done with those.

Even the former home secretary David Blunkett (Webmii: 7.1), prominent in a government that furiously gathered information about us, appears to have moved towards an emphasis on privacy. “People are doing things they would never have dreamed of doing before, in terms of exposure,” Blunkett warns. “Don’t go on Facebook.”

For Facebook’s 500 million users, that warning comes a bit late: even when you delete material it will be archived somewhere and accessible to anyone determined to find it.

The internet has in effect created a “permanent memory” that can be searched by anyone. America’s Library of Congress has announced that it will be acquiring — and storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006. You might hope that the more embarrassing material would be hidden somewhere obscure. But research suggests that people are quicker to forget the good stuff about you, whereas the bad stuff lingers.

Thus, due to the recent leakings online of abusive rants by Mel Gibson (Webmii: 8.8) about his ex-girlfriend, the fourth result on a Google search about him is negative gossip, rather than (say) complimentary reviews of his film career. Similarly, the fifth result on a Google search for the heiress Paris Hilton (Webmii 8.3) brings up disputed claims that customs officers in Corsica once found marijuana in her purse and had briefly detained her.

In a recent book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (Webmii 4.7) points out that until recently people were able to change as they grew older — to learn from their experiences and adjust their behaviour. The permanence of our past on the internet makes it harder to move on.

Mayer-Schönberger says there could be a technological fix: mimicking human forgetting with built-in expiry dates for data. But such an idea remains hypothetical. For now, we must hide things as best we can. Jemima Khan (Webmii: 6.5) tweeted that she deletes conversations from her Twitter page for the sake of “tidiness”. But anybody determined to find what she’s deleted can do so easily.

That’s why people who aren’t the least bit famous are hiring “reputation managers”. One, ReputationDefender claims to have customers in 100 countries. A short but scary film on its homepage explains why. “Your life could go viral,” the film threatens. “Dumb stuff posted online is there forever, like a misspelt tattoo.” It accepts that some of us may never have posted anything silly online. “Congratulations! You’re very responsible. But what about everyone you worked with, dated, led on, teased, berated, shamed, sued, flamed, wooed, did wrong? Discover what’s out there about you. Delete. Define your online image. Call a reputation adviser today.”

Fees vary across the industry. For $15 (£9.50) a month, ReputationDefender will work with a client to clean up and monitor their internet reputation. They can also send an alert whenever a new reference to them or their children is posted online. (Google Alerts will do the same — at no cost.) After watching the company’s film, it’s easy to yearn for the time when there was no internet. But taking oneself off the web is not an option, and might not be such a good idea; almost everybody looks people up online. If someone is not there to be found — if their Webmii score is nil — that in itself might raise questions about them.

What to do?
Tweeting idly about this the other day I got a message back almost immediately about a friend of a friend, an expert in online reputation management who has just published a book on the subject. I looked up Louis Halpern (Webmii score: 5.1), then gave him a call, hoping for some free advice.

The best way to ensure a good reputation, he told me, is to do nothing silly online in the first place. Think carefully about who might see things. Keep personal and professional life separate. Link to friends on Facebook and professional acquaintances on LinkedIn. Even among friends and family, edit what you make available. “On Facebook you can group people and define what they can see. I have only 20 people who can see my photos,” he says.

A recent Microsoft study showed that 78 per cent of recruiters conducted internet searches on candidates. Halpern does the same — but when he’s hiring he does it with the candidates sitting beside him. “We do internet searches on them, together. It provokes a good conversation. At least one out of every three says at one point, ‘Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed!’”

As often as not, the reputation management Halpern does for clients involves nudging good stuff about them higher on Google’s page rankings, rather than trying to eliminate the bad — because 90 per cent of people searching for information don’t bother to look past the first page of results. “If there’s something negative out there about you, you won’t be able to delete it but you can push it down by pushing something else further up.”

Search engines work by assessing the relevance of a term on any given page, and the rank of the page. Looking me up, one of the first pages Halpern found was an article I’d written for The Sunday Times. “It only says John-Paul Flintoff once, but it ranks highly because the paper’s website is authoritative.”

Alas, when it comes to improving my reputation online, a newspaper archive is useless because it can’t be tampered with. To raise my rankings on Google I need my own site. As it happens, I have one already, set up before newspapers archived articles online. That it’s been around for years is good news, says Halpern. “Age is important. If a page is old we are more likely to target it [as a page to push up the ranks]. If someone has invested the time to keep a page on the internet it’s more valuable.”

It would be more valuable still if I updated it constantly. But the one thing that would really raise my credibility — and my Webmii score — would be a link to my site at the bottom of this article. “That would increase your visibility exponentially,” says Halpern. So, here it is: please click on the link and take a look around.

1763 words. First published 20 August 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.