Don’t Let Cyberspite Destroy Your Good Name

You buy a television on eBay. When it arrives, you eagerly unwrap it, only to find it is badly scratched. You return it, and leave a negative comment about the seller on the site. The next day, you find the seller has retaliated by posting a nasty comment about you, branding you as a time-waster. Suddenly, no one wants to sell to you and your reputation is in tatters.

Until now eBay’s rating system, which allows users of the auction and trading site to leave good or bad comments about their trading partners, has worked well. Sellers who ship out damaged goods, or items that do not match their online description, rightly get a black mark against their name. However, this system has recently come under increasing pressure from an all-too-human failing: spite. Sellers can easily retaliate against buyers who have named and shamed them, leaving unwarranted but highly visible comments — perhaps claiming that the buyers do not follow through with purchases, or needlessly return items they have bought.

Fear of this retaliatory “negging” can deter buyers from posting negative comments about their trading experiences. In turn, this threatens to undermine the trust that buyers place in sellers’ ratings.

So severe has the negging problem become that this month eBay was forced to change its rating system, preventing sellers from posting negative comments about bad buyers on the site.

In an online auction site like eBay, your reputation is your livelihood. Economists Daniel Houser of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and John Wooders of the University of Arizona, Tucson, have shown that sellers with positive ratings are able to sell items at higher prices, because buyers will willingly shell out greater sums just to be sure they are buying from a trustworthy source. And more people are likely to bid on items offered by those of good standing (Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, vol 15, p 353).

In a study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research next month, Amar Cheema of Washington University in St Louis also found that when a seller’s reputation is less than squeaky clean, bidders are more likely to scrutinise additional costs such as shipping charges and bail out if they are too high. When the seller’s reputation is good, however, buyers are less interested in such surcharges, and sellers are more likely to secure a deal.

Trading websites are not the only place where nasty comments can have serious financial implications. When someone writes something malicious about you online it can be read by anyone typing your name into a search engine for years to come — including potential employers and university admissions staff. And as the number of websites that people use to buy and sell or make new friends and business contacts increases, so too does the need to guard against such acts of cyber-spite.

So how can you protect your reputation online” Various companies are now offering to help, by managing what is written about you on the web. ClaimID, founded by Terrell Russell and Fred Stutzman, is a free service that allows users to collect, annotate and verify information that is either about them, or written by them, such as blogs, websites or news articles mentioning them. The result is a list of links to websites the users have approved. “You can think of it as an online link resumé,” says Russell.

This means that when people search for your name they will come across your ClaimID profile, which brings together all the online material you want. “The things that are about you online, the people you know, the contacts you make — they all equate to a reputation,” says Stutzman.

Other companies, meanwhile, are offering to generate an online profile that will appear whatever website you use. TrustPlus, for example, allows users to integrate information from sites such as eBay and Facebook to create a public profile. “Your reputation is yours, and should be available and usable wherever you are online,” says TrustPlus’s Shawn Broderick. “Got a great rep on eBay” You should be able to leverage your good name on other sites too.”

TrustPlus provides a piece of code that users can download to their browser, so that when someone next views your profile on Facebook or eBay, a small cross appears next to your details. Moving the cursor over this cross will bring up your profile. This consists of ratings by people who know you personally, or have had dealings with you online, in the form of a series of symbols, ranging from “do not trust,” to “most trustworthy.”

TrustPlus also hopes to prevent people artificially boosting their reputation through collusion. A good reputation can be built on sites such as eBay, for instance, by “trading” with a known partner who uses a dummy account to rate you highly, enabling you to lure in unsuspecting buyers in the future. This works because a user has no idea who is responsible for the ratings when they view a person’s status on eBay.

TrustPlus, on the other hand, lists the usernames of everyone who has rated you, and users can click through to view each of your profiles in turn, to find out how these people know you. TrustPlus also allows users to build a three-tier “trust circle” of family and close friends, people you know well, and people you’re merely acquainted with.

The idea is that the more people who sign up and build their own trust circles, the greater the chance that a stranger you meet online will be familiar to one of your friends, or at least a friend of a friend. This allows you to view the reputations of strangers through the lens of people you know and trust. “When I run into Jane online, I get her reputation filtered through you as a lens, and if I think highly of you, then your opinion of Jane matters,” says Broderick.

“If my network of trusted folk don’t think highly of you, then your opinion of Jane won’t matter as much.”

But even if you trade honestly on auction sites, and your Facebook page contains nothing but a glowing profile from friends and family, your reputation could still be marred by disparaging comments about you on blogs or chatrooms, or embarrassing pictures someone has dug up of you rolling around drunk while at college. You are probably not going to get that job or university place if a prospective employer stumbles across such stuff while running a background search on you — as recruiters and university admissions staff frequently do.

To help, Reputation Defender, based in Menlo Park, California, monitors what is being said about its clients online for a monthly fee, and attempts to clean up any bad-mouthing it finds. The company uses search engine optimisation techniques to push negative information about clients down search engine results pages, and raise anything positive. It also contacts sites hosting damaging material and asks them to take it down.

While many of us are becoming more savvy about what we chose to reveal about ourselves, and the type of pictures and videos we post, we may all do things we later come to regret. We can also find ourselves the unwitting target of online abuse. At least now there are ways to fight back, and to undo some of the damage caused by our own carelessness, or the malicious attacks of others.

[Claire Bowles @ New Scientist]

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