The importance of reputation has changed over the course of human history. Once a matter of social status anxiety for the upper class, for most other people reputation was a private commodity within the community. With the invention of the internet, we are now all visible and, as Warren Buffet said, ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.’
A brief history of reputation
From Roman times to the 17th century, reputation mattered hugely to a relatively small number of people. For this narrow class it could define your ability to make a living or forge a marriage or career. Insults to reputations were settled by duels fought to restore honour. By the 1760s, the many social rituals, the obsessive marking, recording, announcing and, indeed, painting of the significant rites of passage of life – births, engagements, marriages, deaths – began to broaden the numbers and classes of people for whom reputation mattered in the public sense of defining your place in the world.
People become public record
These rites of passages began to be published and became a matter of public record, for example via an announcement in The Times. The 1700s saw the development of scandal sheets, newspapers and the age of the pamphlets as a means of attacking a reputation. However, this was in the age of print – distribution by carriage, printing by hand, writing in ink and setting in blocks meant news didn’t spread far very fast.
Dawn of a new era
When the telegram was introduced at the end of the 19th century, along with the advent of the mass media – the likes of mass circulation newspapers, radio, cinema and newsreels – this led to the creation of professions designed to use these mechanisms for selling and promoting or for attacking and destroying reputations.
The middle classes
A good reputation became a solidly middle class concern, as the United Kingdom became a solidly middle-class culture. The reputation that mattered was one of appearance, decency and playing the game correctly. But there was a broad-based sense of what it meant to have a good reputation, with the trade unionist having as much call on decency as the bank manager. The tabloid press and rapidly expanding magazine sector allowed some management of your place in this reputational world and the quality of newspapers and BBC news allowed for a certain degree of benchmarking against which exaggerated claims to virtue could be debunked.
A blessing and a curse
As we come to reputation in our own century, the digital era is one that thrives on speculation, constant information, perpetual reinvention and the victory of hype over evidence. The situation is both an opportunity, because that which is not fixed can be changed, and a threat. If you can change your reputational value, so can others.
The marketplace of reputation has not been so volatile since the 18th century, but now everyone’s reputation is being traded, measured, viewed and recorded. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to distinguish between who you actually are and who the internet says you are.
Nowadays it is hugely important that you take back control over what’s written and included on the internet about you to make sure it sends the right message about you and your reputation.