Getting fired because of a bad joke is certainly a painful experience on its own. But watching the joke as it makes its way to the front pages of major international newspapers, pushed by a global wave of public indignation, is definitely a lot worse. Especially when it's just a few days before Christmas.
The now former PR Executive Justine Sacco has learned a harsh lesson about the risks of using social media recklessly. Yet, the story of her controversial tweet has a lot more to it. It highlights a dynamic that has always been in place throughout human history, but which is gaining a whole new dimension in the age of digital communication: the importance of reputation.
Everyday the Internet brings together people who are complete strangers. Our social interactions, our purchasing decisions, the way we do business and how we think about politics all increasingly depends on the degree to which we are ready to trust (or not to trust) others - which is what reputation is principally about. Just think of the damage that a bad review online can do to a restaurant or a hotel: the Local Consumer Review Survey 2013 shows that as much as 79 per cent of consumers trust online reviews to the same extent as personal recommendations, with only 12 per cent saying that they have no effect on their purchasing choices.
Recruiters are even more likely to consult the Web before making a decision. Ninety-four per cent of companies today are already using or plan to start using social media for recruitment purposes, according to a 2013 survey run by Jobvite. And 42 per cent of interviewed employers admit to have changed their minds about candidates (whether positively or negatively) based on their activities online.
Yet many still underestimate the impact that our virtual history can have on the real world, without realising that the weight of our reputation has grown hand in hand with the pervasiveness of digital technologies in our society. The more we've turned online to conduct our daily businesses, the more we've been forced to trust others with our personal data, from our feelings and thoughts to our employment history and credit card information. In the context of ever-growing interconnectedness we currently live in, trust based on reputation acts as the mechanism that keeps society together and prevents it from falling into chaos.
The problem is that today reputation has also become much more fragile. With information travelling across the world at unprecedented speed, a stain on a politician or a company's reputation can go from local to global in a matter of hours. While a good reputation may require years to build, it usually takes very little to be destroyed: in the case of Ms. Sacco, it only took hers the time needed for her plane to get from London to South Africa.
Reputation is increasingly hard to control, too. As a democratic free space with no overarching authority, the Internet not only provides a megaphone for everyone to share their views with the world, but it also ensures that what gets posted on it sticks around for a while. The algorithm governing Google's PageRank is designed in such a way that an unflattering article or blog post may feature among the first search results despite being outdated or not entirely accurate. That's why to protect themselves from the spectres of bad photos or poor reviews a growing number of firms and individuals are turning to reputation management services.
By tweeting her ill-judged comment, Ms. Sacco has shown a profound ignorance of all these dynamics, an extremely serious shortcoming in a supposed PR expert. Yet, it would be wrong to regard the convergence of people's reputation online and offline as merely implying that even our smallest mistake, such as a stupid comment on a Friday morning, could haunt us for years. The fact that we are all potentially connected to each other also means that strangers are now able to trade goods or services and work together in ways that were previously unthinkable. Digital technologies can foster the rise of new networks of exchange and peer-to-peer collaboration; by telling others whether we are reliable or not, our reputation helps determine our role within these networks.
In the world of business this process is already underway. "People are realising the power of technology to unlock the idling capacity and value of all kinds of assets, from skills to spaces to material possessions" - said "social innovator" Rachel Botsman in a 2012 Ted talk in which she explains how, thanks to technology, new markets are rapidly emerging for things that had no market before. Properties can now be rented on Airbnb, hospitality offered on CouchSurfing, hostels selected on TripAdvisor, jobs advertised on Craiglist and used cars purchased on eBay. "[And] the secret behind it is using the power of technology to build trust between strangers." "In the future - adds Ms. Botsman, who has been one of the strongest advocates of the concept of 'collaborative consumption'- reputation will be the currency that says: you can trust me."
There is hardly any doubt about it: in the next few years, the way we behave on the Internet will have an increasing impact on our life in the real world. And the boundary between people's reputation online and offline is likely to become blurred. This will lay the foundations for new types of relationship to spring up across society, with the Web providing people with the information needed to cement mutual trust. But at the same time, it will mean that any trail we leave on our digital path, from a review to a comment to a 'like', will be used indiscriminately to assess our reliability. In the face of this new reality, it might be wiser to save our worst jokes for the next Christmas dinner.