A few weeks ago, we were in the middle of a substantial reputation study for a global client. The study required phone interviews with the top tiers of their stakeholder community. I asked to do a few of the interviews as I like to get a feel for every major piece of work we are involved in. That’s how I came to be talking by telephone to the dynamic, thirty-something head of a very influential advocacy group.
As we talked, I became more and more interested in his thoughtful and provocative answers. I had never met this man so I did what any self respecting citizen of the 21st century would do: a Google image search. The first three rows of pictures were him at international meetings, speaking at advocacy events and shaking hands with various government leaders. By the time, I got to row four on the search page, he was proudly holding his child and sitting alongside his partner (also a rising star in development circles).
Row six of the Google results was, though, a different matter. There was a shot that had been dragged into the search from an old My Space account. It was a young man, topless with his hand aggressively thrust into his sweatpants. The sweatpants themselves had been pulled down to almost crotch level. How could Google be so confused as to deliver this sexually provocative image in a search for pictures of my interviewee, the very intense development advocate? Then I realised, it was my interviewee. He was younger, the face was studying his crotch but there was no doubt, it was the same man.
Of course, I’ve read about those cases of teenage girls sexting explicit images to a boyfriend they later dump and the jilted man then posting the compromising photos as widely as he can. But I had never personally come across an example of the unforgiving memory of the Internet.
I doubt those pictures will cause my interviewee more than occasional mild embarrassment. We live in an age where our lives are so open to anyone with a search engine that the threshold for damage is much higher. Indeed, one theorist has suggested that we are entering an age of “mutually assured humiliation” where the ease of access to our collective past means that none of us will have to fear it. I think that’s a bit ambitious but there may be some truth behind it. Certainly, the second, third and fourth chances given to ex-Congressman Weiner in New York (who was fond of posting unsolicited photos of his most private parts to chat rooms), to the brothel-hopping Senator Vitter from Louisiana and to Toronto’s crack-smoking Mayor, Rob Ford suggest that we are willing to accept politicians with more public foibles.
It is still worth thinking about, though. In a more innocent age, did you or your company post pictures of parties or young love that you don’t really want coming up next time a Wall Street Journal writer prepares to interview you? Getting rid of them may not be possible (or may involve expensive legal threats) but it’s worth considering professional help from the new breed of online reputation consultants.
As for me, I’m just giving thanks that the photos from my fraternity days in Alabama seem all to have succumbed to being soaked in beer or shredded by wives who would rather their husbands forgot the whole messy business. I will, though, remember to do periodic image searches on my name, just in case.