In the premier issue of Psychology Today, controversial Harvard sociologist Stanley Milgram proposed a test for Hugarian writer Frigyes Karinthy’s theory that any two people on earth are connected by no more than five intermediaries. Dr. Milgram arranged to have 100 random individuals around the U.S. deliver a package to an individual across the country strictly by way of close acquaintances. In the end it took an average of six steps to deliver the package, even though the participants only knew vague facts about the target at the beginning. From this work, the phrase “Six degrees of separation” was coined, and a fascinating example a loose social network was demonstrated.

Where is your online reputation being established?

Blogging is a very simple form of web publishing, and takes the form of a diary, or thought journal visible to the public. The most recent posts are at the top, and it’s simple to link to other blogs or websites. Comments can be posted without special tools and available immediately. The best blogs reflect spontaneous thinking, done quickly without too much editing and re-writing. Conversations can grow into amazingly elaborate webs involving a rich diversity of opinions.  Social networks also have a large impact not only in what an audience sees about you, but how search engines rank the other content mentioning your brand or name.

For individual publishers, blogs are like printing presses combined with a powerful social network and free speech protection. Customers can voice opinion quickly and easily to large numbers of people. Others in the blogosphere pass along the voice through links (votes) and “page rank”  (and now, “author rank.”) so the original posting rises in popularity in the search engines. A blog with a high page rank, or an author with a high “author rank” is a very powerful thing, indeed, as I’ll describe in a moment.

For those comfortable with the tidiness of current public relations techniques, the road is going to get a bit bumpy. Simply put, there is no way to control blogging or social networks. Traditional “damage control” efforts are totally ineffective, and can even backfire if they are applied to the blogosphere. It’s a totally different world, requiring a completely different mindset. If you produce a substandard product or service, it’s going to be nearly impossible to survive once these social networks gain steam.

To be fair, bloggers are not all disgruntled. They often band together in glowing praise of their favorite companies, products, or people. A few popular bloggers telling the world how great a clothing company’s manager treated them can elevate the store’s website to a whole new level of profitability overnight by boosting its “relevance” in the search engines.  It would pay you to think about how you might leverage this.

Forward-thinking companies are approaching this head-on. Rather than looking to the past for damage control strategies, they are joining in – weaving themselves into the blogosphere long before it’s needed, first by listening and learning, and then by participating in an open, honest and transparent way.

Monitoring the blogosphere for trouble spots is becoming a critical task, and more firms than ever are employing professional bloggers to extend a peace pipe whenever something seems wrong or a microphone when things are going well. When bad news hits, these companies don’t run for cover; they link to the bad news and address it head-on. It becomes much harder to “slam” a company with good blog relations.

Market researchers are chomping at the bit. Never before has it been so easy to see what’s going on without the inherent difficulties of surveys and questionnaires. Customers who blog about products or services they use offer a wonderful insight. Seeing the comments in context, and being able to chime in to get added information opens up a whole new world for researchers.

The best approach I think is to listen 90% the time, and chime in when you see an opportunity to help or explain. Don’t immediately take the discussion “off-line” but keep the blog going. This type of un-marketing is the wave of the future.