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Trust and Reputation in the Digital Era

As it’s been said, we’re trying to have a civilization here. 

So, what is the foundation of a society? Is it the economy? Personal relationships? Employment? Institutions like a legal system or a free press? 

As it’s been said, we’re trying to have a civilization here. 

So, what is the foundation of a society? Is it the economy? Personal relationships? Employment? Institutions like a legal system or a free press? 

I would argue that the cornerstone underlying all of those is trust—and trust’s corollary, reputation. Because nothing really works without them. 

Trust is our personal, inward expression of this principle. It’s what allows us to feel comfortable writing out a check for services to be rendered, dropping our children off at their school, and sharing our information with a person or a company. 

Reputation is the external view. It’s the level of trust that others have in these services, schools, companies, institutions or technologies. And it’s the foundation for other people’s trust in you. 

These two elements are bound together like electrons in an atom, continually affected by one another. 

When trust is broken either rightly or wrongly, reputation suffers and, in turn, trust is harder to come by. This is a concept that is ages old, and there have always been those seeking to take advantage of trust without tarnishing their own reputations.

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But it’s also a concept that’s being disrupted and made more complicated by our connected society and our expanding digital footprint. Reputations are more difficult to manage in an age of social media as the opinions of individuals, or small moments captured in time, or brazen statements, or even outright mistruths are able take on an outsized influence that can reach across our communities. 

Never have we been able to influence or change the perception of trust and reputation as we can today. And because of this shift, we need to be asking ourselves new questions. 

For example, do we trust the apps on our phones? By default, when we click on any app, we’re giving the creators and entities behind that app our trust, yet we rarely take the time to understand everything we’re trusting those apps with. 

Recently, one of the most popular apps out there, the Weather Channel app owned by IBM, operated by TWC Product and Technology LLC—and used by 45 million people per month—was sued in Los Angeles county superior court for burying disclosures in its terms and agreements that it was tracking users’ locations and selling the information. 

So who were those entities buying that data? While they could simply be marketers interested in consumer behavior, they could also include so-called location aggregator services, which are able to track any cell phone to within a few meters and sell that information to anyone. 

Location aggregators came under fire last year with the New York Times’ revelation that Securus, a prison technology firm, was using detailed location information. Also uncovered was the fact that the Mississippi County Sherriff was using location tracking services to follow other officers and had also targeted a judge. The prevalence of location aggregators in the telecom industry led to Fortune calling cell phones the “world’s ablest spies.”  

In some cases, a reputation could also be ruined or trust could be lost based on bad judgment being captured and digitized. In the 2016 NFL draft, Ole Miss Offensive Lineman Laremy Tunsil was projected by some as the No. 1 pick, but slid to No. 13 after his Twitter account showed an unflattering picture of him just ten minutes before the draft started. Damages are estimated at $7-12 million depending on where he would have landed without the social media attack.  

Now, are people going to delete their weather apps or throw away their phones or never post another photo to social media? Maybe not. But it’s more important than ever to be aware of what we’re clicking on, what pictures we’re appearing in, what services we’re using, and how we’re using them. We live in an age where much of our lives is digital and everything we do or say may be documented and referred to years later. 

The bottom line: It’s harder and harder to manage a reputation. Simply being aware is a good first step, but if you’re like most people and interact with technology regularly, you should be asking yourself what your digital vapor trail says about you and its potential impact on your own reputation and the trust others have in you. 

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