Opinion

With Internet media, how you live is critically important

Three years ago, I was catching a plane at Boston's Logan airport and went to buy some magazines for the flight. As I approached the cash register, a woman coming from another direction got there just behind me - I thought. But when I put my money down to pay, the woman said in a very loud voice: "Excuse me, I was here first!" And then she fixed me with a piercing stare that said: "I know who you are." I said I was very sorry, but I was clearly there first.

If that happened today, I would have had a very different reaction. I would have said: "Miss, I'm so sorry. I am entirely in the wrong. Please, go ahead. And can I buy your magazines for you? May I buy your lunch? Can I shine your shoes?"

Why? Because I'd be thinking there is some chance this woman has a blog or a camera in her cell phone and could, if she so chose, tell the whole world about our encounter - entirely from her perspective - and my utterly rude, boorish,

arrogant, thinks-he-can-butt-in-line behavior. Yikes!

When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher. When everyone has a cell phone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is a filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher,

paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We're all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer - and each of us so much more transparent.

The implications of all this are the subject of a new book by Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN, a business ethics company. His book is simply called "How." Because Seidman's simple thesis is that in this transparent world "how" you live your life and "how" you conduct your business matters more than ever, because so many people can now see into what you do and tell so many other people about it on their own without any editor. To win now, he argues, you have to turn these new conditions to your advantage.

For young people, writes Seidman, this means understanding that your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. Before employers even read their resumes, they'll Google them.

This also creates opportunities. Today "what" you make is quickly copied and sold by everyone. But "how" you engage your customers, "how" you keep your promises, and "how" you collaborate with partners - that's not so easy to copy, and that is where companies can now really differentiate themselves.

How can you outbehave your competition? In Michigan, Seidman writes, one hospital taught its doctors to apologize when they make mistakes, and dramatically cut their malpractice claims. In Texas, a large auto dealership allowed every mechanic to spend freely whatever company money was necessary to do the job right, and saw their costs actually decline while customer satisfaction improved. A New York street doughnut-seller trusted his customers to make their own change and found he could serve more people faster and build the loyalty that keeps them coming back.

"We do not live in glass houses (houses have walls); we live on glass microscope slides ... visible and exposed to all," Seidman writes. So whether you're selling cars or newspapers (or just buying one at the newsstand), get your hows right - how you build trust, how you collaborate, how you lead and how you say you're sorry. More people than ever will know about it when you do - or don' t. ...

Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.

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