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Net users are becoming their own reputation managers

A recently released study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project states that Internet users have become more aware of their digital footprint.

With everyone becoming a producer in the YouTube age, self-branding ("The Brand Called You") has evolved from a fancy to a necessity.

Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame have shrunk to 5 seconds of microfame, and in the contained public arena of social networks, amateur paparazzi--thanks to the viral nature of social media--have the power to grant celebrity status. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Clive Thompson's poignant piece for Wired on the rise of "microcelebrities."

As Facebook walls make personal communications open to the rest of your trusted network, even your most private moments become public relations. What used to be said in e-mail is now "the writing on the wall." This radical transparency lets more and more Internet users nurture their image, manage their privacy, stage their public appearances, and distribute carefully chosen content to their circle of online friends.

PR professionals will have mixed emotions about this trend, as the borders between profession and confession are increasingly blurry. Thompson quotes Theresa Senft, a media studies professor and one of the first to identify the rise of microcelebrities: "People are using the same techniques employed on Madison Avenue to manage their personal lives. Corporations are getting humanized, and humans are getting corporatized." And he writes: "In essence, I'm sending out press releases. Adapting to microcelebrity means learning to manage our own identity and 'message' almost like a self-contained public-relations department."

The growing sophistication for managing one's online reputation is supported by the findings of a recently released study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, stating that Internet users have become more aware of their digital footprint: In 2007, 47 percent searched for information about themselves online, compared to just 22 percent in 2002, and 60 percent of U.S. Internet users surveyed were not concerned about how much information is available about them online.

This stands in stark contrast to the 84 percent, who, in a similar study in 2000, had expressed concern about third parties getting personal information about them from the Internet. Teenagers, the Pew study shows, understand the implications of their digital footprint best, protecting their privacy by using pseudonyms or private accounts, and locking personal details into "walled gardens."