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Do you need a Web publicist?

'Identity managers' act as agents, lawyers, enablers – and enforcers – for lives lived increasingly online.

By Cristian LupsaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 2006



John Joseph Bachir is a programmer. He's also an amateur filmmaker. He has a blog and is involved in a series of software projects, some of which he runs. He sometimes records an audio show about odd Wikipedia entries. He even submitted a photo of penguins to Cute Overload, a website overrun with cuddly animals that make you think "Soooo cute!"

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You can discover all this by checking JJB's (he often uses initials online) profile on ClaimID, one of many start-ups allowing a user to manage his online identity. Through ClaimID, Mr. Bachir consolidated information about himself available online, rather than letting a search engines decide what comes up when someone types in his name.

"My ClaimID changes with me," Bachir says. "Google doesn't change with me."

The Internet has matured to a point where so much of one's life is online that some people need methods of self-promotion and self-protection, concepts usually associated with the imagemakers of politicians and Hollywood stars. As more employers, workers, and singles use the Internet to check someone out, the idea of managing one's online presence doesn't sound so strange.

"It's a dawning awareness," says William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who studies online identity. "More and more people understand the perils of self- revelation online."

Think about it: In an age where people create content on the Web inspired by the possibility of wowing millions, online identity management is a natural – if unintended – consequence. Someone's "virtual" identity can come back to haunt them.

"It's funny that today we all need an Internet publicist," says Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "The Everyman's publicist."

Online-identity management services range from agent and enabler to attorney and enforcer. ClaimID lets you pool information already online and claim it as yours. Other services, like Naymz, will promote you. ReputationDefender will try to clean up after you.

Changes in recruiting and hiring have fueled this demand. A June survey by ExecuNet, which studies recruiting trends, says that 77 percent of executive recruiters run background checks on candidates by using search engines. One-third of them (a slight increase from 2005) said they eliminated applicants based on what they found.

A survey by CareerBuilder.com found that 1 in 4 hiring managers used search engines to screen candidates. One in 10 also checked candidates' profiles on social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

Dan Hornig, a senior recruiting manager for Novo Recruiting, spends more than one-third of his day researching clients – and yes, that includes looking for information about them online. For Mr. Hornig, a Naymz user, the service is both a one-stop shop for applicant information (if an applicant is on Naymz) and a promotional vehicle. Just the other day, he says, 10 people viewed his profile.

Job seekers need to build and maintain an online presence because employers and recruiters will be out there looking. Exposure helps. "We all want that senior VP title and the six-figure salary," Hornig says.

If you don't like the reality of online background checks, consider moving to Finland. There, a government agency has banned employers from doing Google searches on job applicants, a prohibition you won't see in the United States anytime soon, Professor McGeveran says.

Fred Stutzman, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, came up with ClaimID (www.claimid.com) after studying Facebook, the college social networking site.

Mr. Stutzman says he was "blown away" by the amount of personal information available in Facebook profiles. Then one day, he heard a professor saying she was embarrassed by some of the results she got when she did an online search using her name, even though the information was true.

This led Stutzman to conclude that proper management of one's online identity will be a "major problem" in the future. ClaimID is not so much a solution to that problem as it is "a guess ... and a research question," he says. This free service has about 10,000 active users and tries to address two popular concerns: distinguishing yourself from people who share your name and putting the available information in context.

Stutzman says he might introduce a paid service in the future, but the basic account will remain free.

When he looked at what came up when he searched his own name online, Stutzman found 1999 computer-coding work posted on the UNC website, but no context for it. If an employer had found this information, he says, they would have scoffed at him. ClaimID lets Stutzman say, "Yes, this is about me," and add a disclaimer, "this was written in 1999, when I was just starting to write code."

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