Pondering that X, I spelled his name with Scrabble tiles and scooted the letters around my kitchen table. The first words I came up with: SLANDER FIXED.
Ten years ago, on our first date, a woman looked at me with terror when I told her that I had Googled her and found the designer-shoe company she ran on the side. The look said: What else do you know? But sometime in the last decade, the practice of furiously Googling people stopped being creepy and became standard operating procedure. Today, the market in online-reputation management is estimated to be nearly $5 billion, with hundreds of companies devoted to monitoring, improving, and even policing your online profile. The most famous of them, Reputation.com, advertises on NPR and charges in the low thousands of dollars for a basic scrubbing, which involves creating factual but flattering social-media accounts and websites, and more for bespoke guidance about how to protect your reputation online.
That work is not really any slimier than the work of PR firms offline—relentlessly accentuating the positive and hoping no one asks about the negative. But in the digital world, with anonymously registered websites, it’s easier to create natural-seeming whisper campaigns, positive or negative, and disavow any role in them. Michael Zammuto, president of Reputation Changer, founded in 2010, says he has seen numerous clients try to beat Google by flooding the web with junky self-glorifying sites. “These strategies never work over the long term,” he says. “There are no shortcuts.”
In the early days of the web, when average users and search engines weren’t great at discerning which sites were reliable, it really might have been possible to bury your indiscretions with pop-up web pages that extolled your virtues. But that Wild West of unreliability slowly gained its own kind of law and order, with the web professionalizing, commercializing, and socializing its way out of disreputability.
Now we have a web that users trust more because they think (correctly) that the Google era has weeded out the liars. But what makes the web more credible also makes it more vulnerable since users’ trust is again ripe for manipulation. Weirdly, the Phiniverse thrived on the assumption that people like me would not look at it too carefully. These were white-noise websites, engineered to drown out an ugly signal and designed perhaps less for discerning human readers than for search-engine robots, which organize and curate all the information users discover via search. Bumping just one negative news story off the first page of results with a positive notice might seem like a trivial achievement, but Google’s algorithm is sharp enough now that users assume anything interesting will appear on the first page.
The sites devoted to promoting Phin struck me at first as quixotic, since they were in direct opposition to everything I knew about the web—built on the principle that it could be used to conceal rather than reveal; that it could be tamed, mastered, and tricked. I felt sure that the web of the social-media era had natural immunity to these manipulations. About the big data web of tomorrow, I’m becoming less sure.
Phin maintains one relatively straightforward site, phinupham.com, and its registration included a New York phone number and the address of his family’s home, an $8.5 million West Village townhouse. He was confused but friendly when I called him, told him my name, and said we had met in a philosophy class. “How are you doing,” he said, omitting the question mark and clearly not remembering me. “Did we have a call scheduled?”
I told him no, and that I was a journalist and wanted to talk to him about all these press releases and accolades. “No,” he said. “I’m not interested.” I said that I had been doing some investigating and that I thought he had paid someone to AstroTurf the web to conceal his past. “I don’t want any part of any story,” he said. “This last year has been very hard on me and my family.” Then he refused to say more.
In searching for a new lead, I returned to where I started: the websites, most of which were registered anonymously or with fake details. I figured that the Phin campaign had improved with time and that whoever had orchestrated it was more likely to have slipped up earlier. The first site registered, just days after Phin’s arrest, was phinupham.com, and there I found a link to a real address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thud. At the bottom of this reputation rabbit hole was a rabbit—apparently a metal one. The e-mail address led me to a stylishly austere website for a PR firm that specialized in online-reputation management. “Bryce” was Bryce Tom, 32, a spiky-haired Californian who had previously run the online-reputation section of Rubenstein Communications and founded Metal Rabbit Media in 2011.