Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Digital Damage Control

So, last month I appeared on a local TV news segment about "Digital Damage Control," to use the dramatic title they gave to the story.  It's all about what to do when something negative pops up in the search results for your name, or organization, or product for that matter.  How do you address the problem of bad Google publicity?

You would think that if it's something false, or blatantly offensive, you could just appeal to the better natures of the site owner, or blogger, or internet provider for that matter, but no, that doesn't work very well.  Often you'll get no response whatsoever, or maybe a shrug of the shoulders.  So, what can you do, who can you call?  Not Roto-Rooter, that's for sure.

Well, why don't you check out the segment, which originally aired on the 11:00 PM news on November 11th (that's 11/11 at 11, but who's counting?).  And note that the sound is a little on the low side, so you may have to turn your volume up a bit.  After you're done, meet me back here so I can correct a few errors.

So, yes, I confess, somewhere on the internet there is a listing for Sex Vixens from Outer Space, and my name is attached to it as the author.  But it is not in fact a movie, which would be a more serious matter, what it is, is a Commodore 64 text adventure game from the 80s.  And frankly, I wish I had the programming skills to create a game like that, I really wanted to make my own text adventures back in those early days of the personal computer revolution, but I never got past the basics of BASIC.  Anyway, I had an Atari 800, not a Commodore, and let me tell you, that Atari was a great little machine.  But I digress.  The point is, whoever the author was, it wasn't me.

And in case you're wondering if there might be someone else out there with the same name as me, well, it's highly unlikely, as that is the only listing that has ever come up on any search engine under my name that is not me.  As far as I know, I am the only Lance Strate on the planet.  It's interesting to think about that sort of thing, by the way, that is maybe, in the future, people will be given or create for themselves unique names, perhaps by using one or more middle names, and maybe titles, to make it possible to find them without confusion on search engines.

So anyway, what I figure happened is that, back in the 80s, someone used my name as a pseudonym in this one instance.  My guess is that it wasn't someone that I knew very well, although I could be wrong, but I don't recall knowing anyone who knew how to write code for the Commodore, and I think it more likely that it was somebody not too close, maybe even one degree of separation removed, who heard my name and liked the sound of it, or thought it would be funny to use.

Hey, if anyone out there has any idea of who the actual author of Sex Vixens from Outer Space might be, or if the real author is out there, let me know.  I bear no grudges, I'm just curious at this point.

When I first started to check up on myself via search engines (back before google was a verb), this item came up in the first ten rankings, at one point even as the first!  And I admit to being taken aback, feeling uncomfortable, both for the association with this kind of content (obviously, the real author did as well, which is why a pseudonym was used), and for the fact that it is, essentially, a false attribution.  A me that is not me.

I was uncomfortable, but the news report is incorrect in saying that I deliberately tried to bury it with all of my digital activity.  First of all, while feeling uncomfortable, it just didn't bother me all that much.  Second, I had no idea what to do about it, so I just ignored it.  And as more and more pages listing my name appeared on the web, e.g., my online publications, citations of my work in other publications, listings on various sites, sites selling my books, web pages at Fordham and elsewhere, and eventually social media profiles, my blog posts, etc., it just naturally got pushed further down and down and out of awareness.

And I had no intention of ever bringing it up, until Andrew Siff contacted me about doing this story, explaining that a friend of his (Alan Gottlob I presume) had developed this sort of search engine problem.  So we met at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus for the interview.  Andrew was interested in seeing my own Google search results, so I decided to share this example with him, which proved to be a very useful illustration.  But obviously, it's more dramatic to say that I used a deliberate strategy, rather than to say that it just happened naturally, as a result of being active online.

But hey, I got some really good face time on this story, don't you think?  Name time as well, but well, that I take for granted.  But it was also great to see Fordham University get some good publicity out of it.

Anyway, there's also a text version of the story online, under the title of Undoing Digital Damage: How To Write Your Way Out Of Trouble, filed by Andrew Siff on the station's website.  And I got a Google alert last month that pointed to the same story appearing on the MSNBC website, I'm not sure if that means it also aired on that cable news channel or not, but it's since disappeared from there.  Anyway, the story has a tag line, "The keyboard may be mightier than the sword -- If used properly."  And then it begins,

Fordham University Technology Professor Lance Strate couldn't help but laugh when he googled himself -- and saw a surprising hit.

And let me stop right there, I can't help but laugh, and note that I'm not a Technology Professor, as you probably know, I'm a Professor of Communication and Media Studies.  Okay, continue please,

"Somebody claimed I'd written this soft-core film for a Commodore 64," said Strate, who pointed to the link on projection screen inside a classroom on the school's Manhattan campus. The film he supposedly wrote was called Sex Vixens From Space. But the professor never wrote such a script, and never even owned a Commodore 64. Strate laughed it off, assuming some mischievous blogger had co-opted his name for some reason. Then, he happened on a pretty good strategy to abolish the fictional shout-out.

He wrote some real stuff.

Okay, you remember from a few paragraphs above, it was a text adventure, not a film.  Not as sexy as they made it out to be, no.  And there were no bloggers back in the 80s.  But, hey, details, details.  Let's move on,

His blog, Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing, advises the young, the old, and the in-between to write, write, and write some more. And by keeping it clean you'll gradually earn a good reputation, impervious to any search engine. After all, Google and other navigators tend to rank searches by the age of a post. And recent writings register higher. So, you can also tweet your way to a clean rep.

Check it out, dear friends.  Blog Time Passing has made the news!!!!  We are the story!!!  And so what if I never actually advised anyone "to write, write, and write some more" before.  By quoting this here and now in Blog Time Passing, I've made it so!  A self-fulfilling professy, don't you know?  So get to it, boys and girls.  Write away!  And yes, keep it clean!  And thank you so much, Andrew, for the great publicity!

But wait, there's more,

Of course, it's not always so easy. Financial advisor Alan Gottlob was horrified to see the words "insurance scam" only a few hits from the top when he entered his name into Google. The phrase came from an article he insists was totally false. But his attempts to reach the author, the editor, and Google itself have proven unsuccessful.

"Makes you feel angry," said Gottlob. "Makes you feel like you can't get the truth out there."

And let's get some more Fordham in there, if you don't mind,

The truth, say young Web-surfers, is that the Internet tends to be written in permanent ink. Rebecca Bates, a student at Fordham said it's all about knowing the risks before you even log on for the night.

"You're putting yourself out there," she said. "You should have the knowledge that anything you put out there, anyone can see."

But wait, what about me, me, me? 

Professor Strate offered other advice. Use an alias, or alternate screen name, if you plan to post anything too controversial. That way, it won't show up in a search for your name.

Yes!  I get the last word in, sort of.  Use an alias.  Like the author of Sex Vixens from Outer Space did, ha ha.  Ah, the irony of it all!

So, all in all, this was a good story, and great fun, and maybe did somebody some good somewhere.  And you can go check out the video on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A80eS9qA26w and like it or comment or whatever it is that people are doing nowadays.

Or just go google yourself.  I mean it.

Oh, and stay tuned for more on this subject later on, including something big coming up a few months from now.  No, I can't tell you now, you'll just have to wait.  But when the time comes, I may call upon you to do a service for me...  And I'm not talking google here.

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