The Basics of Reputation Management

Reputation management is the process of tracking an entity’s actions and other entities’ opinions about those actions; reporting on those actions and opinions; and reacting to that report creating a feedback loop. All entities involved are generally people, but that need not always be the case. Other examples of entities include animals, businesses, or even locations or materials. The tracking and reporting may range from word-of-mouth to statistical analysis of thousands of data points.

Reputation management has come into wide use with the advent of widespread computing. This is evidenced by a recent front page story in the Washington Post featuring several online reputation management firms. Reputation management systems use various predefined criteria for processing complex data to report reputation. However, these systems only facilitate and automate some aspects the process of determing trustworthiness. This process is central to all kinds of human interaction, including interpersonal relationships, international diplomacy, stock markets, communication through marketing and Public Relations and sports.

Real-world communities: Small town
The classic example of reputation management is the small town. Population is small and interactions between members frequent; most interactions are face-to-face and positively identified — that is, there is no question who said or did what. Reputation accrues not only throughout one’s lifetime, but is passed down to one’s offspring; one’s individual reputation depends both on one’s own actions and one’s inherited reputation.

There are generally few formal mechanisms to manage this implicit reputation.Implicit Reputation is the accumulated reputation one gets in a small town from previous actions. The town diner and barber shop serve as forums for exchange of gossip, in which community members’ reputations are discussed (implicit reputation), often in frank terms. Outstanding members may receive small, symbolic awards or titles, but these are mere confirmations of general knowledge.

There is exceedingly little deviation from community norms in a small town. This may be seen as either good or bad; there is little crime, but also little room for dissent or change. The small-town model scales poorly; it depends on each member having enough experience of a large number of other members, and this is only possible up to a point.

Real-world communities: Big city
The large metropolitan area is at the other end of the spectrum from the small rural town. Community members come and go daily, and most members are only personally acquainted with a small fraction of the whole. Implicit reputation management continues to work within sub-communities, but for the city as a whole, it cannot.

Big cities have developed a large array of formal reputation management methods. Some apply only to sub-communities, such as, say, an association of local dentists. There are four methods (among others) which apply quite generally to the entire population: elections, appointments, the criminal justice system, and racial or ethnic prejudice.

The city is governed in part by elected officials — persons who are given special powers by popular vote at regular intervals. Campaigns are often well-financed efforts to force a positive image of a candidate’s reputation upon the electorate; television is often decisive. Elected officials are primarily concerned with preserving this good reputation, which concern dictates their every public action. Failure to preserve a good reputation, not to mention failure to avoid a bad one, is often cause for removal from office, sometimes prematurely. Candidates and officials frequently concentrate on damaging the reputations of their opponents.

Appointed officials are not elected; they are granted special powers, usually by elected officials, without public deliberation. Persons wishing to be appointed to office also campaign to increase their perceived reputation, but the audience is much smaller. Effective actions and demonstrated merit are often important factors in gaining a positive reputation, but the definition of this merit is made by the elected, appointing officials, who tend to evaluate merit as it applies to them, personally. Thus persons who work hard to increase an elected official’s reputation increase their own, at least in their patron’s eyes. Some appointees have no other qualification beyond the fact that they may be depended on at all times to support their patrons.

The stresses of big city life lead to much crime, which demands punishment, on several grounds. The severity of this punishment and of the efforts of the system to inflict it upon a community member depends in no small part on that individual’s prior experiences within the system. Elaborate records are kept of every infraction, even of the suspicion of infractions, and these records are consulted before any decision is made, no matter how trivial. Great effort is expended to positively identify members — driver’s licenses and fingerprints, for example — and any use of an alias is carefully recorded. Some small punishments are meted out informally, but most punishments, especially severe ones, are given only after a long, detailed, and formal process: a trial, which must result in a conviction, or finding of guilt, before a punishment is ordered.

Although it is sometimes said that serving one’s punishment is sufficient penalty for the commission of a crime, in truth the damage to one’s reputation may be the greater penalty — damage both within the system itself and within other systems of urban reputation management, such as that of elections to office. Between the explicit punishment and the damage to one’s reputation, the total effect of a conviction in the criminal justice system so damages a person’s ability to lead a normal life that the process, at least ostensibly, is meticulous in determining guilt or lack thereof. In case of “reasonable” doubt, a suspected malefactor is freed — though the mere fact of the trial is recorded, and affects his future reputation.

The ordinary citizen, meeting a stranger, another citizen unknown to the first, is rarely concerned that the second may be an official, elected or otherwise; even so, he may be aware of the relative failure of reputation management in this regard. He does not have easy access to the database of the criminal justice system, and portions are not publicly available at all. Lacking other means, he often turns to the mock-system of racial or ethnic prejudice. This attempts to extend the small-town model to large communities by grouping individuals who look alike, dress alike, or talk alike. One reputation serves for all. Each individual is free to compose his personal measure of a group’s reputation, and actions of strangers raise or lower that reputation for all group members.

The high incidence of crime, the proverbial incompetence of officials, and constant wars between rival, self-identified groups speaks poorly of all systems of urban reputation management. Together, they do not function as well as that of the small town, with no formal system at all.

As usual I added this post some reading pieces, abstracts and presentations. Please find my cream puffs in English and German language below…

Related literature (English language):

Related literature (German language):

Reputation Management
Reputation Management (Picture source:

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