Reputable sauce

Reputation, whether good or bad, is a nebulous thing—hard to pin down, let alone control. People have it (everyone loves Benedict Cumberbatch*). Corporations and institutions have it (Microsoft are staid, bland, and corporate. Apple are hipsters). Words and concepts have it (the word “feminism” seems to make some people break out in hives).

But in general, a reputation cannot be expressed in so few words, because for all that we can talk about someone’s reputation, it’s not really a property of that person at all: It’s an amalgamation of the individual attitudes of everyone else towards them**. This is shown by—for example—what happens when someone ruins their reputation. It happens not immediately upon them doing whatever detestable thing causes their depreciation, but as people discover and spread the word.

It’s a bit easier to understand and work with an individual person’s attitude to someone or something. A customer who dislikes the shop that sold them a faulty toaster may change their mind if the staff are helpful in getting them a new one. And there’s a lot of truth in the cliché that “first impressions count”, because they define the starting point which later impressions adjust.

The internet has had two significant impacts that make reputation rather more fragile: there is unprecedented ability to “spread the word”; and—as the classic Peter Steiner cartoon says—”nobody knows you’re a dog”***. This means an imposter can do something heinous and the real person wakes up to sudden opprobrium from all corners with no idea why.

I guess it’s another reason to think twice about anything you read. Especially online. Including this ;).


* Examples of reputations expressed in this paragraph are used playfully and should not necessarily be taken as the opinion of the author. Though Cumberbatch is pretty cool.

** Clearly not all contributions are equal; generally strangers have less impact than close friends, but as I said, how it works is hard to define.

*** My (faulty) memory initially thought this was originated by Gary Larson (of “The Far Side”), but he would probably have gone with a cow.