Combine these two facts — anything posted on the world wide web is permanent, and the web has massive reach — and you have a recipe for both good and potential disaster.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent the past six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

Back in the day, before I began my real estate career, I was a human resources manager. Part of that job entailed dealing with employee performance and discipline issues. The internet was barely a thing, yet folks were already spending time talking to the HR guy about their transgressions on the web.

That was over two decades ago, and it’s pretty clear that many still haven’t learned the primary law of publishing their thoughts and feelings on platforms accessible by virtually everyone:

The internet never forgets.

There’s a corollary to that law: A whole bunch of people have internet access.

Combine those two facts — anything posted on the world wide web is permanent, and the web has massive reach — and you have a recipe for both good and potential disaster.

The good

A significant portion of a real estate agent’s job is marketing — be that marketing a home for sale, or marketing their professional services. The permanence and reach the internet provides is a marketer’s dream.

The ability to publish content on a platform that showcases you, your services and your “products” in a relatively inexpensive and practically permanent fashion is unprecedented. To use a tired phrase, the internet is a game changer.

The potential disaster

Cheap, wide-reaching, searchable, findable, permanence — those all sound like traits one would want in their marketing platforms. Those are all good things, if they are used and taken advantage of wisely.

However; there’s also a dark side to all of those factors.

You can open Facebook on your phone and type out a status update in a matter of seconds. Click “share” and off it goes to the interwebs for immediate publication to the world.

Go to a site like WordPress, SquareSpace or Google Blogger, and within just a few minutes you can have your very own platform from which to opine and pontificate. Google will swiftly find your content wherever it may be, index it and make it available to searchers all across the planet.

Today, anyone can publish their thoughts to the web, instantly.

What could possibly go wrong?

Ask that question to the real estate agent in Minnesota who commented on a network news live-stream of an oil rig explosion in Oklahoma. Tragically, several oil rig workers were missing in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and feared (correctly as it turned out) dead.

For whatever reason, the agent a couple of thousand miles away decided to comment on that news stream with something along the lines of, “They were probably all Republicans, no great loss.”

You’d think one sentence in a sea of comments flying by would go unnoticed. Think again. The agent was swiftly and brutally lambasted by hundreds of people. Within a few minutes of his insensitive comment, one-star reviews flooded his Facebook business page.

His rating on Yelp went from five-stars to one-star inside of an hour. Someone dug up his phone number and home address, published them in oil worker forums and encouraged others to, “do no physical harm but feel free to destroy his reputation.” Sadly, a few actually called for physically, “teaching them a lesson.”

How about the property management company that sued a tenant over an allegedly defamatory tweet. One of the owners of the company said, “We’re a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization.” This story was picked up by many mainstream media sites, including The Wall Street Journal.

Guess what shows up when you Google this company, nine years after that statement was made?

Google never forgets.

“Oh come on, Jay. You can’t be throwing extreme examples from some clueless dolts and tell us we’re all toast if we say one dumb thing on the internet.”

Yes, those are extreme examples. But the web is full of both extreme and far more innocuous statements that can lead to dings to your reputation, its total annihilation or some point in between.

It’s just your opinion, right?

Facebook is jammed full of profiles that are a running commentary of U.S. politics. Attacks against the other side of the isle are legion. I’ve seen agent Facebook profiles where multiple political posts are made daily, sometimes 5, 10, 20 or more times a day.

Queue the standard arguments. “If anyone has a problem with how I feel, I don’t want them as a client anyway.” Or, “It’s a free country, and I can say what I want where I want and if people don’t like it they can block me.”

Yep, they sure can. But how good an idea is that?

Listen, I get it. You’re passionate about a subject, you’ve got something to say about it, so by golly you’re going to say it!

In real estate, your reputation is everything. To quote Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

I’m not really in a place to disagree with the smarts of Buffett, but there’s part of that quote that’s not quite current — in today’s world of the internet and social media, it takes more like 30 seconds to ruin your reputation.

Don’t become a reputation management statistic

We’ve all heard the trifecta of verboten topics — politics, sex and religion. It’s not that those topics can never be discussed. In this day and age, we need some public discourse around politics and other sensitive topics.

But there is a time and place for such discourse, and your Facebook profile or page, Twitter, Instagram, your blog and website aren’t the best places.

Have a momentary lapse in judgement and decide you’d be better off deleting a post, comment or page? Why not just relegate that to the trash can?

Because — the internet never forgets.

There are cached pages. There are sites like the Wayback Machine. Want to see what Inman News looked like in 1997? Here you go. You’ll even see the form there where you could input your address, and Inman would mail you the schedule for “Real Estate Connect ’97.” Mail, not email. Like postal mail, with a stamp and everything.

Think your rant about the latest “discount” brokerage or the evil listing portal, the idiot agent on the other side of the transaction, or worse that complete pain-in-the-rear client is safe from prying eyes because you posted it in some Facebook group that’s “private” or “secret”?

Think again. Screenshots can — and are — taken in droves, all it takes is a keystroke. I can’t count how many screenshots I’ve seen from private groups posted publicly for all to see. Nothing you post on the internet is truly private. Nothing.

If you feel compelled to talk about the verboten trifecta, brag about your latest commission check or broach other polarizing topics like gun control, abortion or capital punishment, at least pause for a moment and consider the ramifications of a client, prospect, a future broker or even your children seeing it, and yes, judging you for it.

Your reputation is crucial in this business. Putting, “Tweets are my own,” in your Twitter bio doesn’t protect you. In fact, Tweets aren’t your own — you represent a brand, be that your brokerage or personal brand — and you represent it 24/7/365, regardless of any “disclaimer” in your bio.

P.T. Barnum famously said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Remember though, Mr. Barnum didn’t have internet access and wasn’t living in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.

It’s easy to let your passions and emotions take control. You need to think before you post. Consider all the ramifications. You probably don’t want some wanna-be columnist in a trade publication citing you nine years later. You certainly don’t want clients and prospects thinking, “Wow, this guy is blathering on Facebook all day long, when is he actually trying to sell my home?”

That happens, more often than you probably think. Because the internet never forgets.

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the mastermind behind Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.

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