(R)evolution Episode 5: Michael Fertik on Privacy and Social Networks

Thank you for joining me for the 5th episode of (R)evolution, a new series that connects you to the people, trends, and ideas defining the future of business, marketing, and media. In this episode, Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation Defender, joins the program to discuss privacy and the reasons why you and everyone who matters to you, will be unfairly, but forever judged by what’s online.

A recent study by security company AVG and Research Now surveyed  2,200 mothers in North America (USA and Canada), the EU5 (UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain), Australia/New Zealand and Japan, and found that 81 percent of children under the age of two currently have some kind of digital profile or footprint, with images of them posted online. 92 percent of U.S. children have an online presence thrust upon them by the time they are 2 years old. In many cases, a digital presence is born before the child, with sonograms (23%) actively published and shared on social networks and blogs.

While innocent in nature, this behavior exhibits the simplicity of sharing first and the recognition of potential consequences later.

In Engage, I talk about fusing the “Me” in social media with the “We” in the social web. We cast digital shadows and trigger a butterfly effect with everything we share online.

I believe that we are the last generation to know privacy as it was and from now on, it will have to be taught. We are entering a new era of publicness or publicy, where we are solely responsible for creating and defining our online persona. Some will learn the hard way. Others will learn to take the wheel of their personal brand and steer it in a direction that reveals meaningful opportunities and experiences.

Studies already show that as much as 64 percent of HR managers screen candidates by what they find on social networks. 88% of universities rate social media important in evaluating prospective students. Lenders are researching your social graph to assess your credit risk.

It’s time to take control.

Remember, what works against you also works for you…as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.”

A few other interesting stats from the “Digital Birth: Welcome to the Online World” study:

Mothers that gave their baby an email address
Overall – 7%

USA – 6%
Canada – 9%
UK – 4%
France – 7%
Italy – 7%
Germany – 7%
Spain – 12%
(EU5 – 7%)
Australia – 7%
New Zealand – 4%
Japan – 7%

Mothers that gave their baby a social network profile
Overall – 5%

USA – 6%
Canada – 8%
UK – 4%
France – 2%
Italy – 5%
Germany – 5%
Spain – 7%
(EU5 – 5%)
Australia – 5%
New Zealand – 6%
Japan – 8%


Award-winning author Brian Solis hosts REVOLUTION, an insider’s look into Social Media’s most talented minds. In episode 5, Brian Solis talks with Internet entrepreneur and ReputationDefender CEO Michael Fertik about privacy in a world of online sharing. Special thanks to The Fox Theater in Redwood City for allowing us to film at their historic venue.

Brian: Hello everybody. Welcome to Brian Solis.com and another episode of (R)evolution. I have with me today someone who I think is going to be quite interesting, and that is Michael Fertik.

Michael: Our mission in ReputationDefender is to protect your reputation and privacy, to give consumers control over their digital profiles. I was moved by the idea that while the Internet is giving birth to so many tools that enrich our lives, that allows us to find information, to research information, to learn, to make friends and connections. Also, we are feeling, each of us, more and more exposed and more and more vulnerable, not just because of the content that we are putting up by ourselves on the Web, but also because of content other people are putting up about us. We haven’t really bought into the opt-in process. We have been opted into the machine without our consent and my job is to give you back control.

Brian: Do you think people feel that they have lost control or that they are willfully diving into this pool of social media?

Michael: It is a great question. We have customers now in a hundred countries, and I think our customers are people who feel very worried about some portion of their digital profile. I think we have seen in the last few years the growth of the kind of low-level high anxiety about peoples’ sense of lost control. They can’t quite articulate the problem in all cases. They don’t really know what the consequences are; they don’t know what to do about it. There is this sense of helplessness or hopelessness, but they have a sense that they are being violated and that is why we started the company. That is why we go to work in the morning is to give them back that control.

Brian: So what brings somebody to you? If we look at how people are sort of embracing Facebook and Twitter and other profiles where they are basically putting things out into the public stream intentionally, what if someone says, I need to talk to you at ReputationDefender. What had happened to make that call? Or that email, or what have you?

Michael: People are very excited about the opportunity to publish information about themselves to share, to connect, to learn about topics all around the web. That is exciting to people. However, they are also feeling that the information that they are sharing is being reused, archived, digitized, mirrored, and then used and exploited in ways that they never signed up for. Also, they are feeling that there is a lot of content being published about them without their consent, or with their kind of tacit consent. They surf to a page. That fact of their surfing to a particular page shows up in a database, which then is used to digitally profile them. We have seen the emergence in the last couple of years of a kind of low level high anxiety among consumers that says, hey, I enjoy the Internet, but I have not opted in to the abuse of my information and that is why ReputationDefender exists, to give you back control of your privacy, and back control of your digital profile. In terms of incidents that actually lead to using ReputationDefender, they can be anything from trying our products and saying, wow, there is a lot out there about me, or, hearing about it from a friend, or having some kind of wake-up moment, an ah-ha moment, saying, oh, I see that ad networks are really taking a lot of information about me, putting them in digital stores, selling them, marketing them in ways that I never expected and that is something that I want to stop about myself and that is why they sign up with us.

Brian: Interesting. I have written over the years, in terms of the human aspects of social networking and the ideas that privacy is something that is going to be, as we knew it, lost with this generation. It is now something that I believe is going to have to be taught. And that is going to have to not just be taught to users, but people who influence the decisions of users. And, I wonder, because I believe that certain individuals will come to this, either from the ah-ha moment, which I believe is infrequent, to the oh-oh moment, like I need you, and you mentioned that people who use your product to see exactly the extent of their presence, talk to me about an example one might become surprised to find in terms of information.

Michael: So, we have run a test, for example, and you will be the first to have evidence of this test discussed publicly, in which we have shown a sample set of users whom we have not shown live. They have interacted with this product and this feature only digitally through the Internet. We have shown them how much information we can find about them in terms of PII, in terms of home addresses, age, family information, income information, and then we said, do you want to – right now – having seen this free, do you want to right now purchase our product to remove yourself from that database? And 29% have said yes and opted-in and purchased on the spot. And this is way beyond statistically significant dataset. So, what I am saying is that clearly there is a strong instinct. As soon as you are exposed to the fact that there is something out there about you that you didn’t know was out there, and by the way, it is a little too private, there is an instinct, boom, I want to do something about it.

Brian: O.K. So we are already starting to see now, and have for years, that before Facebook and before Twitter there was Google, and we would see individuals getting Googled before they were considered for a job or even a position as a student in a university. And now social networking is the destination for HR or recruiting.

Michael: Both are. Absolutely, and in fact, I think we have seen one study that was done by Microsoft and only in the last eight to twelve months that shows that, and forgive me if the stats are a bit wrong, but it is not going to be very wrong, about 25% of HR managers are looking in virtual worlds, like Second Life and so forth for content about candidates for jobs they are trying to fill. Think about how dorky that is. Think about how deep they are reaching. So, not only are they looking on Google, and Bing and Facebook. They are also looking in places we never thought they would look and by the way, they are not just looking for information about you, they are looking for information about your friends, your past employers, see what kind of people you line up with in your life, and by the way, HR people are copping to this, they are admitting to this. They are making decisions based on what they find. Not just about what you post on your wall, but what other people post on your wall. And what other people say about you and who your friends are and so forth. It is amazing. It is a totally new world.

Brian: You bring up a really good point right there, because to the detriment of the applicant, whether this is for a job or for school, they are not even informed of the decision as to what leads to that negative response. Part of it is, yea, we could kill these certain profiles across the web. The other part of it is how do I learn to better shape this persona that does live on line?

Michael: Good question. That is a great question. And I think you have nailed it. I think you have nailed that people are interested in privacy. That maybe there is a presumption of privacy that maybe at risk, and also, I think you have also nailed the fact that the solution is not to stop using the Internet. Right? So, it is like a diet. Say, hey, if you just don’t eat anything, you are going to be thinner. Well, that also may kill you and also may just be the end of your life. The idea is to have a balanced exercise of enjoyment and also moderation and also exercise that leads you to the place where you actually want to be in terms of your health. Our solution is not to say stop using the Internet. Our solution is to say, use the Internet and use it to the way you want to, and use it in a way that controls your personal information. So, I believe that we are just starting to see the emergence of a new phase of company in the Internet. If you look at say, the top ninety or hundred companies on the Internet that have been born in the last, say, ten years, almost all of them, ninety out of a hundred, let’s say, have been media businesses. So, basically advertising businesses. Which means that all of this amazing creativity and innovation of this Internet revolution class, all of our entrepreneurial friends, what we have come up with, chiefly, is a replacement for like NBC and CBS. Which is not like an earth shattering kind of innovation when you think about it, compared to like cancer biotech or cancer research or other fields in gene research.

However, I think what we are starting to see now is the emergence of another class of company that is going to be a pay for play business in which the expectation is not free. But the expectation is I actually pay you in exchange for value that I am willing to get and it is quite specific as knowable and also I know that you are not selling me down the river and my information down the river because I am not your product because you are not a media business. So it is a very interesting question. I think we have seen the emergence of a fundamental truth which is that it is impossible in the digital age to run a media business and to care deeply about privacy. Now, emphasis on the word deeply. Because a lot of these guys do care about privacy, but their incentives are so locked down on one side, because the only thing they have to sell is you. Right? And so how can they care deeply about privacy at the end of the day?

Brian: I am going to ask you one last question and then we will wrap this up, but one thing that is really important to me, especially for the social web, is that we, I think, and just society in general, haven’t yet figured out that we should proactively take control of our real credit score, and so for the social web, this almost seems like work that I am not ready to embrace, if I am not ready to fix what my FICO score is right now. So, what advice would you have for someone to just take the step to start taking control of their online persona and their reputation?

Michael: I think you have uncovered and identified a very important concept, which is that people are adapting to new rules on the Internet. New uses of their private information on the Internet. That is exactly right. I think you have also seen and pointed out that there has been a very fast rate of change in how peoples’ data are being used. And how peoples’ data are being exploited by companies, and while people are adapting, the rate of change for how those pieces of information are being used, is faster than peoples’ ability to change and adapt in time. And so people are getting smarter, but the systems are getting more and more complex, even faster. So what do you do about it? I think you need a set of tools that are easy to use, easy to understand, that help you understand how you look on the web, what your scores are, how to fix them, how to make them better, and that is what my company does.

Brian: And before you need his service, also be proactive about this presence that you are creating on line and be mindful about it, because it can and will be used against you, but at the same time, it can work for you. So with that, Michael, thank you very much.

Michael: Thank you for having me on your show.

Brian: Cheers!


Andrew Landini, Producer
Adam Eckenfelder, Audio Tech/Re-Recording Mixing
Location: The historic Fox Theater in Redwood City

Past Episodes:

One: Empowered with Josh Bernoff
Two: Silicon Valley vs. The World with Sarah Lacy
Three: Rick Bakas of St. Supery Winery on Social Media, Wine and Community
Four: Charlene Li on Open Leadership

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Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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