In 2010, you are whatever the Net says you are. Deal with it.

Let’s assume that you want to deal with it; that is, you care about the picture the Net paints of you. I think that most of us should care, and I can think of three approaches to influencing the Net’s view: Branding, Offending, and Spelling. The first probably won’t work and the second stinks, so that leaves Spelling; more precisely, spell-checking and what it stands for.

[You know what’s weird? I feel no need for any explanation or defense of my opening sentence.]

Plan A: Branding · In business, they say that reality is what marketing creates. Certain professions (beer, blue jeans, and TV politics come to mind) are about brand construction and very little else.

Why not go with the conventional wisdom and do some personal branding? There are people eager to help, for a price. I suggest reading How Marketing Has Got Under Our Skin by “Peter York”, intense reportage from the front lines. A book title sampled from this world: Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success. I taste vomit in my throat.

York suggests that the process is in the end self-defeating; When everyone is branded, how can yours stand out? His predictions for the future’s “undetectable best stuff” are hilarious, making me think of seductive memes like “Anti-Branding”.

Maybe York’s wrong; after all, a lot of people drink Bud and wear Diesel. But I think that at the personal level, he’s hit the nail on the head; that conventional marketing techniques really aren’t very effective at establishing who you are.

Plan B: Offending · By definition, commercial media write not what most needs to be written, but what’s most apt to be read. While this has always been true, either it’s more blatant recently or perhaps our eyes are sharper. From an Economist blogger: “these are the political ramifications of living in an economy that, to an unprecedented degree, is centred on the media, and hence driven by pure attention.” Is the Attention Economy just a new way of saying “If it bleeds, it leads”?

The effect is that you don’t have to do good work, or be right, or even to have the faintest regard for the truth, to become a household name. If what you’re after is increasing your value in such an economy, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s despicable enough to wreck your career, as long as it comes with a simple colorful story attached. Offend, and be noticed.

Put the old-fashioned way: “I don’t care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right.” And it’s way cheaper than conventional brand-building.

There ought to be a better alternative, and there is.

Plan C: Spelling · Use a spell-checker, I mean. I’m serious. And do the things that people who use spell-checkers do: Take care to be present and accurate and orderly and coherent.

If this is a little too abstract, let me dress it up in a numbered list, just like a self-help book title: Ten Steps To Online Success In The Post-Branded Future.

  1. Get yourself some Web space. It’d be nice if the URL included your name; easy if you’ve got a low-frequency name, tough for Bill Smith and Sue Brown (but consider and similar dodges).

    While having your own space is best, many people use Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Twitter as their online home. This is better than nothing, but do bear in mind that at the end of the day, you don’t control space there, which could be a problem. It’s OK to hire an expert to work on this with you. [Hereinafter abbreviated “Help OK”.]

  2. Get software in place so that you can update your Web space yourself. This may well be blogging software, which is OK even if you don’t plan to blog. Make sure it includes a spell-checker. Help OK.

  3. Ensure that your space doesn’t look goofy. A cheap and satisfactory approach is to use one of the pre-cooked “Themes” that probably came with the software in Step 2. The best approach is to hire an expensive designer with a good reputation. I’m not sure there are any good intermediate approaches.

    It’s really important to realize that your presence doesn’t need to be graphically excellent. Good enough is good enough, as long as it doesn’t look amateurish; think of this as visual spell-checking.

  4. Don’t use Flash.

  5. Load your Web space with useful information about yourself. It’s really best if you write it; but if you’re terrified or have reason to think you suck at writing, you may have to outsource. The worst possible choice is to have Marketing write stuff under your name, because the intelligent modern reader has developed a sensitive marketing-speak detector, and when it goes off, so does your credibility.

    So if you have to, bash out what you think the key points are and then get writing help. And even if you think you’re a decent writer, it’s not only OK but a no-brainer to consult a few friends whose judgment you respect about what you’ve written, and be open-minded about taking their suggestions.

    Don’t forget to spell-check.

  6. Every so often, ensure that your Web presence is up-to-date. Since few third-millennium lives are static, most of us need to update regularly. Make sure to spell-check.

  7. Tell everyone you know who is already online (and who uses a spell-checker) that you are too. A few of them will probably link to you, which will make a difference.

  8. Do not invest any time or money with anyone whose title, or company name, includes the words “Search Engine” or the abbreviations “SEO” or “SEM”. While one hears that there are a few honest souls out there, lots are just looking for sheep to fleece; don’t be one.

    And if your site has your name in the URL and the title, and a friend or two links to you, then when someone wants to find you, they will.

  9. Make sure your Web presence includes a couple of decent pictures of you. Should anyone write anything about you, they’ll want to decorate it with a photo. They’ll search the Web for images, and it’d be really unfortunate if what they find makes you look like Comrade Lenin or a Sudanese warlord. I speak from bitter experience. Help OK.

  10. Every so often, search the Web for your name. Quite likely, unless you have the unfair advantage of a weird name, you share yours with someone more famous or Internet-connected, so you’re not on the first page.

    Don’t sweat it; anyone who really wants to find you will add in your hometown or where you work or some such, and probably succeed, assuming you’ve done a good job on the preceding steps in this list.

    One reason you’re ego-searching is to turn up Bad Stuff. Maybe someone has published something nasty about you; maybe someone’s created a Wikipedia entry for you and it’s lame; maybe one of your drunken undergrad rants has gotten a little too popular; maybe your LinkedIn profile hasn’t been spell-checked; maybe maybe maybe.

    You need to know about these; what to do about them is a complex judgment call. Help OK.

    Well, and you might find Good Things too. If there’s something useful, interesting, or nice about you in a spell-checked part of the Web, link to it from your space.

It’s Like This · Being absent from the Internet is not an option. Trying to out-brand everyone else probably isn’t either. Getting noticed for being colorfully offensive is, but let’s not.

Assuming that, like most people, you’re competent and honest, you can do a whole lot worse than making sure that the truth, coherent and spell-checked, is out there.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ed Davies (Dec 30 2009, at 02:21)

I classify people on whether they know the difference between "its" and "it's". It's not 100% accurate but it goes a long way in triaging the web.


From: gvb (Dec 30 2009, at 05:35)

Amen, brother.

#4 Don’t use Flash. - Amen, brother. At best, using flash on a web page might be cute, <em>once.</em> In reality, like the "branding" meme addressed in the post and article, odds are really good it won't be cute, it will simply be "me-too" annoying.

With respect to spell checking, the (ahem) better browsers that you <em>should</em> be using will do spell checking as you type in submission boxes.

Google is also an easy resource for spell checking. Simply google[1] your word and it will helpfully suggest the correct spelling. In addition, it will link to web pages that you can use to verify you are using the word correctly.

For instance, Chrome doesn't have "meme" in its dictionary, so i googled it: OK, add that to the Chrome dictionary.

[1] Chrome wants me to use Google, not google. Apparently "google" is not a verb at Google. ;-)


From: Janson (Dec 30 2009, at 08:30)

Curiously, much the same can be written about SEO and organizational presence online.


From: Robert Scoble (Dec 30 2009, at 09:10)

Good point. One other thing I'd add is don't be afraid of using video. I can't think of a better way to demonstrate your product or talk directly to your customers than video. Keep in mind that video isn't for everything, though. Text will get read a lot more, but video will often mean conversions from casual reader to customer.

Think about it. I could write 10,000 words about the new Apple Tablet when it comes out or I could spend two minutes showing you in video. Which will be more persuasive in convincing you to buy one?


From: Terry Jones (Dec 30 2009, at 09:17)

Slow day @ Chez Bray?


From: mk2 (Dec 30 2009, at 09:28)

I've failed on point number four. :-(


From: David Orlowski (Dec 30 2009, at 09:41)

Hear and here. Their, they're, there. Writer's, writers', writers. It's and its. Which of these are misspelled? None of them. Which of them make you look foolish, careless, or illiterate when you misuse them? *All* of them.

Over-reliance on spell-/grammar-checkers is an invitation to looking not terribly smart.

What is the best way to avoid making an avoidable writing mistake? If you are writing something that you will show the public, and that you want people to take seriously, *have someone else read it before you make it public.*

Maybe you don't want or need to hire a pro to edit or check for errors. Then get *someone* to read it first, anyone (anyone literate) other than the person who wrote it. And the best single trick to catching errors? *Read the text aloud.* Even if just whispering or muttering it. The simple act of moving your mouth will slow down your reading, which will help nake your brain more likely to see what is actually there, instead of what your brain--the same brain that wrote the words--wants and expects to see there.

And spelling and grammar checkers are also often wrong. Just plain wrong. Microsoft is not in the business of making good dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster doesn't make spell-checkers. "Every day" means "daily," but "everyday" means "ordinary." The modifiers "advance" and "advanced" are sometimes interchangeable, but not others. "Houseboat" and "boathouse" never are. It goes on and on...


From: chrisF (Dec 30 2009, at 09:46)

Excellent points, all.

It would be rather tiresome to try to remain "ahead of the curve" in design and/or technology. To your point, something that isn't embarrassing is enough.

Content, when spelled correctly, remains king.


From: J David Eisenberg (Dec 30 2009, at 09:48)

Use a spell-checker, but don't blindly let it choose your words for you. One of my students did that and came up with this sentence: "My survey would be more useful if it were available in many languishes."

And yes, I know, my personal site hasn't been updated in a loooong time.


From: Matt (Dec 30 2009, at 10:10)

As the maker of blog software that spell checks, I feel compelled to point you to the next generation of the tecnology which includes misused word detection, grammar checking, much more, and that we just open sourced:

Raffi is working on datasets for non-English languages now.


From: Zak Greene (Dec 30 2009, at 10:14)

Thank you for your endorsement of expensive designers with good reputations as the only viable alternative to a prefab template. Seriously. I say this as a designer trying to establish myself against people who tend to assume a recent graduate will work cheaply.


From: DGentry (Dec 30 2009, at 10:24)

I established my own site a while ago, but had trouble keeping it on the first page of results. The problem: I would sign up for services like linkedin, stackoverflow, and friendfeed using my name. Those services immediately accrue higher search ranking than any site I produced myself, and kept pushing my efforts off the first page.

My rule now is to use an abbreviation (DGentry) everywhere, and reserve my full name for my own site. If you search for my name you get linkedin as the first result, my blog as the second, and the various "DGentry" accounts on down the page. I'm satisfied with this outcome.


From: William (Dec 30 2009, at 10:40)

I agree (#4 is a pet peeve of mine too). I would just more strongly push people towards "host it yourself" versus the Facebook & co alternatives.

If Facebook seems like an obvious choice to anyone, remember that Geocities and MySpace were obvious choices at some point too.

These things change fast. In part by action of the site operators (e.g. new terms of service, new privacy settings, new features) and in parts by things out of their control.

It's not hard to do it yourself. I wrote about it a while ago:


From: Jarek Piórkowski (Dec 30 2009, at 11:29)

Couple of opinions re: video:

- In current implementations, video online = Flash. In current implementations, Flash = yuck.

- Video narrows down who can see the message, how, and where.

- Usually, if you need video to explain something, the message is too complicated.

- Specific demonstrations (of process, of flow) are the obvious exception.


From: Jason Markow (Dec 30 2009, at 12:50)

This should be required reading. It is refreshing to see content that does not over promise. This is the way things are (and should be) so deal with it.

My only contribution is to 'reach'.

All of this work, all of this content, all of this time may be for nothing if the only people that ever come across it are the ones already in your network. Avoid routine. Constantly seek new channels, platforms, sites, people who you may connect with.

Great post.


From: Darryl Jonckheere (Dec 30 2009, at 12:57)

Interestingly on the topic of personal branding through blogging, back in July (2009)the New York Times reported that blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants. Technorati: only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs tracked through their search engine had been updated in the past 120 days; translating to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned. (

I suppose this means the time commitment required to blog is far too great for most people.


From: Ed Davies (Dec 30 2009, at 13:18)

Did Matt, while pushing the next generation of spell checkers, really write "tecnology"?


From: Joseph Pearson (Dec 30 2009, at 13:46)

Yep, I agree with most of this — although I do think it's worth taking the time to explore people's reservations and fears about this brave new world. A lot of what you recommend strikes terror in the hearts of many mortals.

But your line:

"Being absent from the Internet is not an option. Trying to out-brand everyone else probably isn’t either. Getting noticed for being colorfully offensive is, but let’s not."

... arrives at a similar point to something I wrote earlier this year:

"The knee-jerk reactions are to opt out or blithely to join the fray. Both responses are too simple. Not participating places you at the new social fringes, a crank. Damning the consequences is absurdly cavalier. The task at hand is to learn what you give out, simply to know the cost of an informational transaction just as we know the cost of a monetary transaction." -

I think this is the key: it's not whether you participate, but HOW you participate, how consciously you act in this sphere — because because an awful lot of people from different points in time and space, known to you and unknown to you, are watching.


From: Joseph Pearson (Dec 30 2009, at 14:31)

Bah, it's very awkward in this sphere to say "this thing I wrote is related to what you wrote in an interesting way" — hard not to come across as pushing something. Oh well.

Ed — I wondered the same thing. To be fair, Tim's form is not after-the-deadline-enabled.

But you know what trumps spell-checking? A bit of editing. If it's good enough for someone else to read it once, it's good enough for you to read it twice.


From: Michael Kozakewich (Dec 30 2009, at 20:47)

I'm lucky enough to have a more-or-less unique name. There's a Jr. who's an attorney in Virginia, but that's it, and I've beaten him out in web popularity.

Just how long does it take to become web-famous, though? I'm imagining ten years, but I have no idea.


From: Chandra Clarke (Dec 31 2009, at 05:41)

Good advice, but I'll second the others on here that suggest that relying on a spell checker might be dangerous. Google the poem "Candidate for a Pullet Surprise" and you'll see why.


From: James Eberhardt (Dec 31 2009, at 08:14)

#4 - Don't use Flash.

What is your rational for saying "don't use Flash"? A blanket statement like that without any back-up doesn't do anything to make the statement worthy of consideration.


From: Michael Ellars (Jan 01 2010, at 11:40)

James: "Don't use flash" is usually one of those "'nuff said" statements, but since you asked: Google is your friend (

From the first result, by none other than the respectable Jakob Nielsen: "Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology tends to discourage usability for three reasons: it makes bad design more likely, it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style, and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value." You may or may not agree with all of the conclusions that Mr. Nielsen reaches, but he is neither a crank nor a newcomer to the concept of usability. You may find his own websites rather dull and boring, but the principles of usability that he espouses are spot-on.

Like any set of rules (I think he calls them guidelines), you are free to break them -- but in doing so, you should be aware of what it is you are breaking, and the result should be better than if you had followed the rules.

But don't take Mr. Nielsen's word alone. Read through the rest of the Google results. It's enlightening.

Also search for "blind billionaire" -- in general, flash sites cannot be indexed, and thus rank lower (if they rank at all). If you're trying to control your online image, wouldn't you want a site that gets indexed and ranked as high as possible?


From: stephen eighmey (Jan 04 2010, at 08:20)

broad comments like "don't use flash" come across as obtuse. good design must flow from the need. if the need dictates then flash is acceptable. though nielsen's core usability principles are often broken by flash sites, they have their place. you must remember that encountering a website is first an experience. the need of the site should dictate how this experience is delivered.


From: len (Jan 05 2010, at 07:41)

"In 2010, you are whatever the Net says you are. Deal with it."

If you have no character, be one.


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