It's a nightmare scenario that anyone who has had a nasty breakup might fear. On April 10, Tricia Walsh-Smith posted the first of three Web videos in which she attacked her soon-to-be ex-husband for everything from his alleged shortcomings in bed to what she couldn't stand about his family. Viewed millions of times on YouTube, Walsh-Smith's videos reflect a growing trend: unbridled online attacks are wreaking havoc on people's reputations.
Once dismissed as the rantings of random hecklers, negative comments on the Web are being taken more seriously these days. As the barbs have escalated, so too have the ways that people are fighting back. Some folks sue for defamation. Others try to engage their critics by posting a response online or asking that the offending material be removed. Still others take the ultimate step--hiring firms that specialize in online-reputation management--to recraft their Web image altogether.
Such extreme image-polishing measures underscore how the Web is changing the way our real-world reputations are formed. Off-line derogatory comments about you can be easily spread behind your back but can also be easily forgotten. "Now we have this giant megaphone of the Internet, where every little whisper about someone shows up in Google," says Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Fighting back can be fraught with complications. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was notoriously outed in 2005 for attempting to whitewash his own entry on the site. Now there's a separate site, WikiWatcher, that aims to unmask similar transgressions. Barack Obama launched a website, Fight the Smears, to debunk false rumors about his background. "It is ridiculous how you can post something on the Internet and not be accountable for it," says Chris Martin, founder of the online-reputation-management firm Reputation Hawk.
Suing for defamation may seem like the most obvious way to stop the problem. But to win your case, you have to prove that intentionally false statements have hurt more than your feelings. (Walsh-Smith got her comeuppance via a different route: in granting the couple's divorce, a New York judge cited her "calculated and callous campaign to embarrass and humiliate her husband" and upheld the prenuptial agreement she had sought to annul.) You also have to know whom to sue, which can be virtually impossible, since so many Web posts--especially on gossip sites like Faceliss and the Dirty--are anonymous. What's more, the 1996 Communications Decency Act frees site operators from liability for posts by commenters.
A more reasonable approach is to confront your detractors directly. "The answer to bad speech is more speech," says Google fellow Matt Cutts, who helps lead the team in charge of ranking algorithms for the search engine. You can start by setting up a free Google Alert that e-mails you every time your name appears in a blog post or on a website. This at least lets you know if you have a problem, and often with whom.
The tough part of reaching out to your critics is knowing what to say. Selena Kellinger, owner of party store Razzberry Lips in San Jose, Calif., apologized to a customer who complained on Yelp that she had "never seen a more unprofessional group of idiots in my life." That critic, Jumoke Jones, was so impressed with the apology that she replaced her negative review with a positive one. Karl Idsvoog, a journalism professor at Kent State University in Ohio, responded to accusations on RateMyProfessors that he was a "rude, disrespectful, pretentious snob" with a Web video on Professors Strike Back. The site is aptly named, and Idsvoog's commentary on it is withering: "We're not there to babysit. We're there to train professionals. Grow up."
If you don't have the stomach to defend yourself, the new and growing industry of online-reputation-management firms will do it for you. The firms' primary goal is to keep the first page of a client's Google search results free of negative links. "We call the top five search results the 'danger zone,' because you don't even have to scroll down to see them," says Reputation Hawk's Martin. For $1,500 a month, the company will create Web pages that cast you in a positive light (preferably with your name in the URL), post links to positive mentions of you on social-bookmarking sites like Digg and Del.icio.us and start blogs on Blogger or WordPress.
"You take all this new information we create and put so much pressure on the top 10 results in Google that the false negative stuff gets pushed down," says Martin. "Once it's pushed out of the top 10, they're pretty much O.K."
Reputation managers stress that they won't help people who come by their bad reps rightly. "Every fraudster in the world thinks that we're here to help them out, but we're not," says Robert Russo, CEO of DefendMyName. But it's still a good idea to click to the next Google page to look for cyberskeletons, since bad guys--particularly the deep-pocketed ones--can use the megaphone of the Web to reshape their image. For everyone else, it's nice to know that when the virtual community starts to whisper, you can now shout back.