The Future of Reputation, by Daniel J. Solove

Official book site, including the full text in PDF format
Amazon link

Solove is an associate professor of law at the George Washington University Law School who blogs at Concurring Opinions. Being involved in the blogosphere has given him a unique perspective on how new social technologies are pushing the boundaries of what existing law covers. This book, subtitled “gossip, rumor, and privacy on the internet”, is his exploration of some of those issues.

It was interesting reading this book immediately after Here Comes Everybody, in that Shirky’s book explores the capabilities that new social technologies are enabling, whereas Solove’s book explores the accompanying risks and consequences. Shirky tells us about all the great ways in which we can collaborate to create new content and publish it worldwide. Solove reminds us that when we can publish, so can everybody else, which means that your reputation can be destroyed with a few clicks from a malicious source.

The book starts with the story of the “dog poop girl”. A Korean teenage girl was on the subway when her dog pooped. She was asked to clean it up, but refused. Twenty years ago, people in the subway car would have cursed her under their breath, but the incident would have been forgotten within a few days. What happened instead was that somebody snapped her picture with their cell phone, and posted the incident to a popular Korean blog. The picture and post went viral, crossed into the mainstream Korean media, and she became infamous throughout the country, harassed wherever she went and forced to drop out of university because of the shame.

The following paragraph from the book is the central issue that faces us:

There’s a paradox at the heart of reputation – despite the fact we talk about reputation as earned and the product of our behavior and character, it is something given to us by others in the community. Reputation is a core component of our identity – it reflects who we are and shapes how we interact with others – yet it is not solely our own creation… Our reputation depends upon how other people judge and evaluate us, and this puts us at the mercy of others. Our good reputation can quickly be lost, with deleterious consequences to our friendships, family, jobs, and financial well-being. We must all cope with the fragility of reputation, the delicate porcelain vessel that carries our ability to function in society.”

Solove titles one of his chapters “The Digital Scarlet Letter” to indicate how we can be branded with shameful behavior online. If we do something that somebody else thinks is inappropriate, they can call us out in a blog post, and our indiscretion will be forever archived and searchable from Google. And if the story is entertaining enough to get passed around (as did Aleksey Vayner’s ludicrous video CV), then your story will become a punchline to people who would otherwise have never heard of you, an aspect of your past that you can never escape. Solove tells us of a world where we can never live down our past indiscretions, where every mistake we have ever made can be magnified and used to shame us.

Some might say that people like the “dog poop girl” deserve to be shamed, that if they behave that way in public, it is appropriate to shame them in public as well. But who gets to decide what behavior is shameworthy? Should the person get a chance to explain their behavior? And is it fair to punish them with the irretrievable loss of their reputation without some sort of due process?

When the means of publication were valuable and restricted to only a few outlets, we could assume that information published about others was likely to be true, as the punishment for libel was the loss of the right to publish, and newsworthy, as it wouldn’t be worth publishing otherwise. Those assumptions do not hold true with free and easy Internet publishing. There is no incentive to check for truth, and any perceived slight can be published without rebuttal.

Solove brings up excellent questions about reputation and privacy in the Internet age, but I was disappointed in his proposed solutions. It’s not surprising that this lawyer proposes law as the appropriate response, but Solove did not convince me. He suggests that we need more torts for loss of reputation, and for breach of confidentiality. He does note that informal mediation and arbitration should be the first steps in redressing a perceived wrong, and that lawsuits should be the last resort. But given the glacial speed at which legal precedents evolve, I’m nervous about using it as the stick by which we create the social norms that guide us through this world of new social technologies.

I think that our best bet is to wait for social norms to evolve, rather than depending on the clumsy tool of the law to preemptively shape those norms. I think that our expectations have not caught up to the technology capabilities yet – we don’t have an intuitive sense that our words, published on a blog intended for just our friends and family, can suddenly go viral and be read by millions, many of whom have no idea of the context in which those words were written. We haven’t developed the skills to read virtual cues, or the ability to articulate those virtual cues in a way that makes it clear to our social brains what the appropriate behavior is. Most people now understand that private email should not be forwarded to a list of thousands. We need similar norms to develop around our publications and public actions – just because something is not inside our own homes does not mean that it is meant to be broadcast worldwide. The transparent society may be coming, but we’re not quite there yet.

I highly recommend this book as a thoughtful exploration of some of the troubling issues associated with the rise of new social technologies. While I don’t agree with Solove’s conclusions about how to address those issues, I appreciate his asking of the questions, and I will be curious to see how our society answers those questions.

Thanks to danah boyd who recommended this book last month.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Reputation, by Daniel J. Solove

  1. There’s no longer a monetary cost to publish information about people’s behavior, but there is a cost in terms of your own reputation. If I easily find fault with people and spew negativity all the time, people will rapidly devalue my opinions. I think the best online systems are ones that directly or indirectly let people build their own reputations and then reap the benefits or consequences.

    The subject also puts me in mind of the populace’s evolving ability to distinguish valuable information and opinions from worthless ones. I remember back in Teh Intarweb Dawn Times getting lots of copies of the Neiman-Marcus Cookie Recipe™. Over time, they tapered off as the people I know who have my email address got a clue. I wonder if maybe many of the problems we see with online reputation are just a marker of transition, and that as the bulk of the world gets a clue, if viral opinions as indelible Digital Scarlet Letters will come to seem as quaint and ridiculous as people believing that the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was fact not fiction…

    (I really can’t wait until some Gen-Yer runs for office and says in response to the discovery of some online “scandal”: “Dude, everyone my age posted drunk-and-nekkid pictures to MySpace when they were 20. It’s totally unimportant. Get over it.”)

  2. I think it’s more complicated than that. I agree that people will learn new virtual cues and new social norms, the way they eventually learned email etiquette. But that still doesn’t help with the publication of what should be private information without recourse.

    We have all done things we’re not proud of, and we don’t necessarily want to broadcast those things to people that we’re meeting for the first time. On a first date, you don’t say “Let me tell you about all of my bad habits and all the stupid things I’ve done.”

    But if somebody else has splashed that stuff on the Internet, then it’s easily accessible via Google, and you don’t even get the chance to explain yourself. One man mentioned in the book is haunted by a short stint in prison he did when he was a teenager, because employers and potential girlfriends weren’t even letting him explain the circumstances before dismissing him. Another guy mentioned had his girlfriend wrote about his kinky sexual preferences on her blog. Another friend tells the story of a fellow student who changed his name as the only way of escaping an allegation of drug dealing. Do you think the Star Wars kid is ever going to live down his youthful exuberance?

    Maybe those people don’t deserve a second chance, and are simply reaping the consequences of their actions. But I think we should still hold some degree of control over what information we disclose and when. And the Internet can make it much harder to do that.

  3. Sure, but consider the argument that a large portion of the solution — certainly not all, but a lot of it — is that people need to realize that everyone has potentially embarrassing information, and not to overreact just because they happened to find someone’s out.

    One could argue that the problem is not that the information about people’s checkered pasts is out there, it’s that people who run across it are giving it undue weight.

    So dude has kinky sex preferences. So what? Is that a valid justification for treating him poorly? So Star Wars kid was youthfully exuberant. A decent person, upon recognizing him as an adult, would either say something positive or nothing at all. “Boy, you sure were a dork when you were twelve” is not an appropriate or civil comment, and I hope he learns to respond, with dignity, “What, and you weren’t a dork? At least my dorkitude was briefly famous. What did YOU do when you were twelve?”

    The internet may be forever, but which is the more shameful behavior: doing something stupid? Or holding someone’s one-time stupidity against them in perpetuity, never giving them the benefit of the doubt, and never forgiving the unforgotten mistake?

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