Trading on Your Good Name

Dateline: August 29, 2011

+Jeff Jarvis has a great discussion going on “How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live”.

I wouldn’t be on Google+ if I didn’t believe in sharing. But I don’t agree that transparency necessarily makes people more open. If we take down the curtains in our house, we are less likely to lounge around in the nude. Likewise, when every public thing we say (no matter how trivial or offhand) is archived and associated with our name, forever retrievable (with or without context), I think this has a chilling effect on what we are willing to say publicly.

Google+ is clearly all about reputation — designed for those who want to build a name for themselves in their fields. When you focus on building a reputation, your concerns — the kind of tools you design to do that — are different than when you focus on building relationships.

So what are some of the things about Google+ that focus on reputation at the expense of relationships?

The Hovercard: Identify with Your Job

Your hovercard identifies you, not by your tag line, but by your current employer. Are you merely your job? And not even your job (your position, credentials, or expertise) but a worker bee? To me, this has a decidedly Japanese salaryman feel: “I am Hideo Tanaka of Sony.” What about the self-employed? The unemployed? The people whose are working “just a day job” while they dream bigger dreams?

This design choice communicates the bias of a certain segment of the population — people who identify themselves closely with their employer. This is a tiny UX point. But it seems significant. And I’ve read enough comments elsewhere to know I wasn’t the only one taken aback by it.

The Public Sphere: Whose Reputation Is It?

The larger reputation-building design choice is that everything you share publicly (posts, comments, +1s) becomes part of your searchable permanent record — associated with your profile. So for most of us who are aware that future clients and employers are looking at us, our public posts and comments take on a neutral professional air. (Exceptions for writers whose personality is their reputation or for writers whose personal experience is the focus of their writing. I’m talking about us ordinary worker bees who have to worry about losing a job.)

Everywhere you leave a +1 or a comment, you leave a link back to your profile. This, of course, is what Google is selling: social search, recommendations made by verifiable sources. But whose reputation are we building when we +1 a site? The transaction works both way. The brand is happy because they have real people endorsements. (This is the reason there is no Google minus.)

Conversely everyone who knows us, can see which sites we +1, which sites we’ve given our seal of approval. (I’m glad I chose my inkan — my legal seal; it really plays to the game.) This gives me pause. Now it’s not just the brand’s reputation being built by loyal customers, it’s my reputation being built by the brands I endorse. I’m not going to +1 anything which might adversely affect my professional reputation. When the ability to get my next job is on the line, I’m going to err on the side of caution.

On the one hand this makes my +1s more valuable because I give out so few. On the other hand, it makes my +1s less accurate and less personal because I’m not going to put my endorsement on any cause that might come back to haunt me.

Sharing With My Circles: The Limits of Limited

If I want to draw a line between my professional writing and my hobbies, circles seem like they would be the ideal solution. But they’re not. That’s because my profile identity is stuck being my professional identity. My personal interests end up being shared only privately.

This results in a two-fold problem. Publishing my more personal topic-centric posts to my circles makes it difficult to find new people who share these interests. Conversely, anyone who followed me because of my personal writing elsewhere is surprised to discover a strong divide between my vocation and my avocations. Instead of posts focused on our shared interests, they get posts about Google+. This isn’t what they signed up for when they followed me here. My non-professional relationships can relate to me better via Twitter, blogs, or email.

Even more frustrating under the current design is that I can’t share content with just my readers, the people who subscribe to my feed. If I post publicly, then everyone can see it. So what’s the incentive for people to follow me if I can’t share something with them that I don’t share with just everybody?

Google+ is acting like a poor replacement for an RSS reader. Subscribe to someone and you might or might not see their public posts depending on what the algorithm has planned for you today.

Your Reputation is on the Line; And Maybe Your Life

In an August 30, 2011 article, the Telegraph reported that 40% of the victims of cyberstalking were men and that, “For women the fear is of physical violence to themselves and then to their families or children. For men, they are afraid of damage to their reputation.”

Whether you’re a man or a woman, I’m curious to know, how much you think about your online reputation when you decide to share something — especially here on Google+, where your name is everything.

Dateline: December 28, 2020

The Google+ article no longer exists. However, apparently he wrote a book.

Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work And Live.