Do you need a Web publicist?

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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!"

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."

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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."

ClaimID users create a directory of links to information about themselves on the Internet, a system much like the one used by del.icio.us, an online bookmarking service.

Clients can also add descriptions of these entries. The John Smith who's running in the local marathon, for example, may not be the same John Smith who was arrested after breaking into the local jewelry store. Stutzman says people need to be proactive about making such distinctions.

Naymz (www.naymz.com), a Chicago-based service launched in June, is much like a personal PR service. Naymz users, a few thousand so far, create a profile and link to various other resources that exist about them – a blog, a photo page, or their social networking profile. Because the service is based around the name of the user, search engines will begin pushing the profile page toward the top of their results list.

Cofounder Nolan Bayliss estimates that 90 percent of users will see their Naymz profile within the first three to four search results. If you want to make sure of that, you can pay Naymz and get a sponsored link at the top of search results on Google, Yahoo, and MSN. (Search for "Nolan Bayliss" online, and you'll see.)

Now that's self-promotion.

ReputationDefender (www.reputationdefender.com) takes a more aggressive tack. CEO Michael Fertik, a Harvard Law School graduate, says he was disturbed to see young people suffering from momentary lapses in judgment, sophomoric weekend indiscretions that ended up online as text or pictures and that might later hurt their chances of landing a job. "Who you are when you are 17 is not necessarily who you want to be when you're 30," Mr. Fertik says.

So, if you don't like the information that exists about yourself online, Fertik's company can search for it and try to destroy it. For a monthly fee (starting at $10), ReputationDefender scours the Web for content about a client and presents a report. For an extra fee, the client can request that some of the information be removed.

Fertik won't reveal the procedures the company uses, but he says they are all legal. They reflect technical expertise and the relationships ReputationDefender has developed. One possible way is simply asking the owner of a website to remove the objectionable information.

"It's half art, half science," Fertik says. "There is no magical button to destroy things."

The service doesn't target news articles, court documents, or other public records, but Fertik says the company has removed content everywhere from blogs to government sites.

Fertik says that ReputationDefender won't help felons erase their records, but it will help clients if they've been criticized on a blog, even if that criticism is valid (being tagged as an unreliable online seller, for instance). Legal action against sites that refuse to remove information is a last resort – and an extra charge.

To Ms. Rosen of the Ethics and Policy Center, efforts to polish a person's online image sound like "airbrushing photos of Stalin" and erasing parts of cyberhistory. Her concern with the more promotion-oriented services is the impact on expectations about who we should be. In the past, Rosen quips, there were certain social rules about appearing in a newspaper. Unless it was a marriage or death notice, your presence in the public eye was suspicious. Today, it's suspicious if you Google somebody and they don't come up.

It's revealing that none of the companies claims to have found a silver bullet, but they all hope to become part of a conversation on the rights and responsibilities of individuals in a growing virtual world.

McGeveran says he understands how online identity management services could help some, but adds that it's we who have revealed most of what is out there in the first place. "The safest way to get the cat back in the bag is to not let it out in the first place," he says.

That sounds easier said than done. This story, for example, just added to the Internet record of eight people.

Manage that.

A note on this story

Online identity is a broad term with several meanings in the Internet world. For this story, it refers to the sum of information available online about an individual. Identity is also used to describe virtual personas and avatars in online multiplayer games like Second Life. Software companies use the term to describe an added layer of protection that helps them to verify your financial transactions on the Internet.

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