Reputation & Writing

Should we put ourselves out there, more or less?

I recently tweeted one of my all time favorite quotes by Dale Carnegie :

Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, for your character is what you are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

It led to a short conversation around what it means to have reputation in the online world. That led to a great post by my friend Alex Hardy.

He writes :

And now, Dale Carnegie is famously, utterly wrong.

Character is important. But reputation is everything.


He goes on to succinctly explain the three pillars (ie. black mirror effect, prestige economy & court of public opinions) of his case to show how that advice is no longer helpful in the internet age. While I had thought of each of those pillars to varying degrees myself, I hadn’t put together a compelling case in my mind to systematically deconstruct Carnegie’s words the way he did.

I very much recommending reading his post in entirety but here are some great bits that really drive home the points :

The internet has uniquely enabled us to measure, track, and permanently record reputation. This manifests in everything from a Yelp review, to your Uber score, to China’s new dystopian “social credit scoring.” 

“I name this “The Black Mirror Effect” due to an episode of the series taking place in a world where reputation literally is everything. Everyone has their own personal Uber rating — for every single interaction. People walk around constantly rating each other. From your best friend, to the ticketing agent at the airport.”

“According to Jon Haidt, as examined in his new book The Coddling of the American Mind, a “New Prestige Economy” driven by “callout culture” has emerged in certain pockets of society — namely college campuses.

In his words: “It emerged in ~2013. In the New Prestige Economy you gain prestige by calling out others. Accusing them of racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia, or some other form of bigtory… If we have an economy of prestige where I gain prestige by these callouts, there’s an cost imposed on the people I accuse, which doesn’t effect me.”

Nassim Taleb would call this problem: no skin in the game. In economics it’s called an externality. So we have a new economy with negative externalities. Just like companies who pollute rivers — they don’t directly bear the cost, so they increase their activity too much — past the optimal point for society as a whole.”

“The hallmark of the US justice system is built on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” We have this so that everyone enjoys “due process” under the law. It’s in the Constitution.

The hallmark of the Court of Public Opinion, is the opposite. You’re guilty until proven innocent. And the Court of Public Opinion plays judge, jury, and executioner.”

I agree with each of his points. We see versions of what’s described above happen all over the internet all the time.

His argument for how our reputations are more important than ever and how the internet enables others to shape them more meaningfully than ever tie into an increasingly discussed topic of self-censorship. If everything we say and do online can be twisted in bad faith to destroy our reputations, should we stop ourselves from speaking our minds and sharing our thoughts online?

Florent Crivello wrote a fantastic post titled Nobody Cares that I very often refer to when I talk to others about censorsing ourselves online. He makes a great case for how posting thoughts online is an asymmetrical game where the downsides do not outweigh the upside for most people most of the time. His optimistic case counters Alex’s cynical case to a certain extent.

I really like the example he uses to illustrate his point :

“An extreme example I can think of to illustrate this point is politicians, who seem able to get away with anything. Embezzlement, sex scandals, you name it. They make national headlines, are the shame of the country for a couple of days, and everybody is sure their career is destroyed forever. Then, they disappear, come back onto the scene after a year or two, run for senator, and win (I hear it can even work when you run for President[reference needed]).

I don’t mean you should be an immoral scoundrel — rather, I want to demonstrate how people really don’t care. These politicians’ entire careers rests upon their reputation, and that of their enemies upon making sure that they don’t get back on their feet. If even they can recover from those scandals, what do you think is the worst that could happen to you (whom, again, nobody cares about) after you’ve made some stupid statements?

Nothing at all. I don’t mean that people won’t remember — I mean that they won’t even notice. Most content is already bad, so yours will just be drowned in that ocean of mediocrity that people scroll through all day. Even better: since it’s bad, it’s not going to spread very far. You’ll be benefitting from a selection effect, where your best content will receive a lot of exposure, and your bad content simply go unnoticed.”

Now, of course there are exceptions. And, of course, many politicians get dragged for their old tweets by their opponents every day. But, his points are still very valid. Most of us aren’t politicians. And, neither are we celebrities who constantly get put under a microscope.

He further writes :

“This is an asymmetrical game where bad moves cost almost nothing, and good moves are worth a lot. Logic dictates that, playing such a game, you should roll the dice as long as they let you. The board game Monopoly was designed to give people an intuitive understanding of the way markets could supposedly tend towards toxic monopolies — I wish somebody designed a board game to make people understand that life is positive-sum; that the downside of most moves is never really as steep as it seems; that the upside can be unbounded; and that the best thing one can do is make as many moves as possible. In Marc Andreessen’s words, “optimize for the maximum number of swings of the bat.”

I very much agree with this sentiment.

As with most stubborn policies, enforced by the government on businesses or by ourselves on our speech, we don’t know what we wont collectively get more of and enjoy as an unintended consequence.

“I do wish more people were active online. The whole promise of the Internet was that of an infinite, vibrant, open forum of ideas. Instead, there seems to be a mass exodus towards private communities — they surely are where I get the most meaningful, genuine interactions, and hear the most original ideas today. This makes me wonder how many eye-opening insights we’re all missing out on, uttered in conversations that should have happened in public. Some people welcome this as a natural evolution of the Internet — I perceive it as the tragic entering into a new Dark Age, and find the silence of some of the most brilliant minds out there deafening.”

As with most things, there cannot be an absolute philosophy that will work for everyone. I agree with both Alex on online reputation and Florent on writing online. Personally, I try my best to be mindful of both viewpoints while also knowing that not putting myself out there at all in the fear of getting reputationally destroyed is much worse long term than putting myself out there and enjoying a ton of upside while trying my best to mitigate the reputaional downside.

You probably wouldn’t have come across these two posts if it weren’t for crazies like myself who tweet a lot :)