If you’ve been tracking the rise of social media services, you may have noticed how many are pitched as reputation management.

“Reputation” is really just an efficient way of saying “what other people think about you”. And if you look at just about any spiritual tradition or self-help book, one of the key teachings will be “try to worry less about what other people think about you”. Yet here we are, defining social media in terms of its ability to monitor and respond to what other people think about us.

I have some room for the idea of “reputation management” when it comes to big brands, or perhaps in the case of public figures. For big businesses and organizations, politicians and public figures, “reputation management” is about understanding the implicit social contract or value proposition between you and your supporters or customers: you need to know what they expect from you and whether they feel you are delivering.

Yet even in these settings I’d rather see “reputation management” reframed as customer service or public responsiveness. After all, we say we want our politicians and our companies to be driven by deep values and a sense of integrity; and integrity comes from knowing who you are and what your mission is, not from obsessively tracking what other people think.¬†When we talk about “reputation management”, we reinforce the idea that the job of leaders, companies and organizations is to jump whenever a shareholder, customer or voter twitches.

Far better to focus on dialogue; on listening, learning and responding. Listen to what your customers and supporters say (even if it’s not about you!); learn from them (on the issues, on what’s important to them, and yes, on what they want from you), and respond in a way that reflects who you truly are and isn’t just calculated to maximize reputational benefits.

The concept of “reputation management” is even more troubling when it’s applied to individuals. If you read blog posts like Create Evangelists for Your Brand on Twitter or 6 Questions (& Answers) That Define Online Personal Branding Through Social Media you can see the hazards. We’re¬†turning tools that once seemed miraculous for their expressive power into YAFMT. (Yet Another Marketing Tool. You know what the F is for.) Except that instead of marketing stuff, we’re marketing ourselves.

I’m no stranger to the joys of self-promotion. And social media is amazing at helping you take whoever you are and putting it out there so you can connect with the people and opportunities that are a fit for you.

But you are not a product or a brand. You’re an actual human being with relationships and ideas and creativity. You can use “reputation management” to sand off all the rough edges before you put yourself online, and to rapidly eliminate any blemishes as they pop up.

Or you can remind yourself that what other people think is no more important online than offline. And get on with the job of using social media to communicate — and discover — who you really are.