Saturday 24 November 2012

Judging people through the prism of the internet

I’m careful not to be too judgmental on people I’ve never met. Reputation is a precious commodity, hard won and so easily lost, thanks to the way information can spread so quickly on the internet. I can think of a number of people whose reputations have been transformed recently, and have noticed how the internet has, for some of them, greatly enhanced their reputation, while in the case of others, reputations have been trashed.

Occasionally, these trashings have been for good reasons. But at other times, the gossip that was spread, or tweeted, was ill judged and plain wrong.

The point of this introduction is to explain how my impression of someone changed very quickly, and very radically, when I met him for the first time.

I had never wanted to go out of my way to meet him. After all, his reputation, in my mind, was one of some grubby sleaze merchant , the sort of man that even Del Boy, from the BBC TV comedy series Only Fools and Horses, might steer clear from.

But when I met him, a few days ago, my image was transformed. What I saw before me was an inspirational speaker, whose warm and engaging manner made you realise what a clever entrepreneur he was, Not a gambler, but a very shrewd businessman. And a very likeable businessman, too.

He looks you in the eye when he speaks. He adopts no manner of superiority. Instead you get the benefit of his experience in the world of commerce, where he has successfully run a group of companies, and is keen to talk about his great mistakes, as well as his successes. You feel that you are in the presence of someone who treats others as fellow human beings, not simply rabble whose opinions and views can be ignored.

(For the record, signing Emile Heskey for Birmingham City Football Club ranks as one of his greatest mistakes. Apparently, Emile’s CV described Emile as a “striker”. The description would have been more accurate if it had said “Striker who doesn’t score many goals”.)

Who am I talking about?

Obviously, I’m talking about David Gold, whose commercial interests currently include Ann Summers, Gold Aviation, Knickerbox, Greenwich House Properties, York Place and West Ham United Football Club. Formerly better known for his businesses in the field of adult publishing (and the Sunday Sport), it’s fair to say that his products might well have entertained many of us over the years – although few of us would wish to publicly refer to any particular product.

From beginnings of extreme poverty, shrugging aside numerous setbacks along the way, David Gold is now one of Britain’s most successful businessmen- and I was keen to understand why.

What struck me was that this man was keen to understand the commercial landscape within which he was working, and to take measured risks. Not to act in a reckless manner, but to knowingly adopt a particular risk threshold – and not to over step that threshold.

What’s any of this got to do with data protection?

If anything, it’s got to do with a theme that I’ll be expanding on in later blogs. It’s about the importance of developing the narrative. In other words, everyone likes a compelling story, and the critical thing, these days, is to ensure that everyone’s story is as credible as it needs to be. The internet can greatly help support these stories – but it can also act with brute force when malicious (or naïve) actors use the web to trash someone’s reputation.

Once published, (and, thanks to the Internet Archive), this material simply won’t go away.

A right to be forgotten does not exist in this context. And it never will. Whatever the European Commission or the European Parliament has to say about it. Regulators can’t control the contents of people’s hard drives. Or the contents of clouds. Or the impressions that are formed in people’s minds.

So, I am so glad to be reminded so vividly this week that the internet is not always right. And nor are my impressions of people, either. It’s only when you get to meet them in person that you can realise just how wrong about a person you really were.

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