But this one has me speechless – online reputation has an ugly side too in an increasingly connected world.
Newsweek magazine reported this week about South Korean singer Choi Jim Sil. They wrote:
“Choi Jin Sil had a lot to live for. She was one of South Korea’s hottest movie stars, and the mother of two young children. But the tides of public opinion can turn quickly and mercilessly–especially in cyberspace. In late September, an employee at a Seoul securities house began posting rumors about Choi in an online chat room. She accused Choi of being a ruthless loan shark responsible for the suicide of a down-on-his-luck actor who had amassed more than $2 million in debts. Within days, the rumors had spread to hundreds of thousands of chat-room users who posted vicious attacks on Choi’s morals and character. Although the rumors were completely fabricated, the chat-room condemnation was more than Choi could take. “I am lonely and I am ostracized,” she wrote in her diary. “I cannot even breathe.”
Her case in not uncommon in the United States. What I believe to be idiotic but clearly are highly popular Web sites like (forcing…down…bile..) Perez Hilton have shot to the top of Google rankings by establishing reputations for throwing out unsubstantiated rumors of celebrities’ sex lives, drug use and other nefarious activities. In the U.S. culture, we are somewhat immune to this – the National Enquirer, with its headlines “I FOSTERED AN ALIEN BABY” would not exist and prosper if we did not.
But the case of Choi Jin Sil did not happen in the U.S., where we are used to this. It happened in South Korea, where they have the highest rate of Internet connectivity as well as broadband in the world. This, combined with, as Newsweek stated, “…the unrestrained ethos of the Internet created a dangerous mix when combined with Koreans’ traditional Confucian emphasis on ‘saving face.'”
What happened? Choi Jin Sil, successful actress and mother of two young children, committed suicide on October 2. To “save face.”
While I cannot read Korean — and many other language barriers exist today –what is true is that we are, indeed, becoming a global society without barriers. The Internet connects us all. Chat rooms, message boards, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter produce a sense of online community. Those whom people have never met become trusted sources of information in “trust” communities.
While terribly sad and not unique in Korea (read the rest of the article for additional Internet rumor suicides in that country), for those of us for whom our reputation is our living, there are some common steps that one can take, including:
- Google yourself. Then set up a Google News alert. Its sounds egomaniacal, but you never know who is saying what.
- Think carefully about the information that you put out about yourself. I recently chatted with someone in her mid 20’s who has created TWO Facebook profiles. One is strictly private and for her friends only (probably with the sort of pictures that you find on Facebook, e.g., tequila shots), and one, completely accessible for the public, is her “professional,” outward facing site designed to appear if and when she is Googled by potential employers.
This Newsweek piece is also a lesson that while we are “all connected” and people still breathlessly talk about how “everything has changed,” the Internet is part of our societies – and things that happen on the Internet do not happen in a vacuum. They happen in lockstep with cultural values and traditions. If someone writes some smack about me (read the whole saga of that here), I can take it with a grain of salt, because I dish it out too (and apologize when I am a knucklehead).
What I cannot get out of my mind, however, if the darker side of online reputation and how and idiotic post in a chat room ultimately took the mother of two young children. I wrote about it last time in Media Bullseye, but now, more than ever, I am going to take a deep breath — and think about who is reading something before I hit the “publish” button.
Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a full-time communications professional at a government agency in Washington, D.C and writes the “Intersection of Online and Offline” blog. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 12 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world. Tweet him at mstory123.