Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for September, 2010

The Future of Reputation

At its heart, Daniel Solove’s book The Future of Reputation is a frank discussion about the ways in which information aggregation, transmission, and expression affect online and offline social structures. While Solove recognizes that the Internet has undoubtedly conferred benefits to users, he also notes significant challenges posed by the architecture of online media and attempts to make readers aware of the slowly shifting changes within American (and, to some extent global) culture.

Although not necessarily central to Solove’s position, a basic understanding of computer-mediated communication is essential for appreciating the author’s later arguments regarding privacy and reputation. One point to consider, for example, is that a number of factors have increased the amount of information accessible to the average person (e.g., lowered barriers to participation, increasingly democratic access to the Internet with regard to both cost and tools, and the improvement of infrastructure) and, perhaps more importantly, the ability of the individual to produce content that is readily displayed on the Internet. The net result of this activity is an increase in the amount of information that is available online and the sheer mass is something not readily comprehended by individual users who do not have a strong sense of the bigger picture. To be entirely fair, this conclusion is not necessarily anomalous given that most users (1) do not have an internalized bird’s eye view of the structure of the Internet and (2) most likely do not have a valid/tangible frame of reference in real life. Nevertheless, Solove argues that the unchecked flow of information can result in incredibly damaging consequences—what we don’t see can definitely hurt us.

Take, for example, Solove’s discussion of social norms and behavior enforcement via shaming as a particularly salient case where unseen forces can present a very real threat; it is precisely because norms are hidden that they possess an enormous potential for havoc. Solove argues that social norms in real life have been fairly well established, even when they revolve around relatively recent advances in technology like cellular phones. Put another way, these are the sort of “unwritten rules” that govern social conduct in societies and may certainly differ based on group members and situational context; a norm is, quite simply, a standard of behavior that stems from mutual agreement as opposed to a sanctioned law (although laws, as Solove notes, may very well derive from social norms).[1] Conversely, however, behavioral norms in online life are still being formulated, which leads to confusion, misinformation, and unexpected consequences. Littered throughout Solove’s book are examples where an attempt to enforce social norms through online media careened out of control—although individuals anticipated a particular reaction to their outrage, intending, perhaps, to gain sympathy or commiseration, the end result was a firestorm of activity that quickly magnified into potentially treacherous proportions as audiences became vigilantes. The problem, Solove suggests, arises when we change the context for presented information without providing sufficient indicators regarding the surrounding conditions.[2] In essence, we take the information gleaned through a snapshot and attempt to build a global explanation that attempts to answer “how” or “why” a particular situation exists.

This change of context has important ramifications for discussions of the public/private continuum, which Solove notes has historically been considered a binary equation. Most notably, Solove argues that a gradation of public and private exists based on, among other things, reasonable expectation of privacy in a given situation. Connecting this back to information flow, Solove also notes that notions of privacy also exist in social networking services—indeed, who hasn’t heard about Facebook’s ongoing struggles with privacy issues?—and suggests that a closer examination of social network structures might offer some insight into considerations of privacy. For Solove, an understanding of the relationships between individuals in a network is a key component of recognizing the difference between secrecy and confidentiality (2007).

Finally, Solove weaves a discussion of reputation throughout his book, demonstrating how the concept can be construed as a social construct that is based upon an amassment of information. As such, the problems that plague information networks on the Internet greatly affect reputation construction, maintenance, systems, and management. For example, the aforementioned flood of information (both good and bad) has somewhat dire consequences for reputation as accurate statements mingle with the incorrect or defamatory in online spaces until the two become indistinguishable. Moreover, the negative pieces of information are able to propagate and linger on the Internet with relatively little concern for the resulting damage; at its worst, the relative anonymity of the online world allows people to eschew personal responsibility for their actions and occasionally promotes vicious rumor mongering that only serves to satiate our basest desires as humans.

[1]Solove, D. J. (2007). The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. For further discussion, see Ferdinand Tonnies’ discussion of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.


[2] I would also suggest that even if sufficient indicators were included, audiences might still be subject to the Fundamental Attribution Error (i.e., the preferential explanatory heuristic that serves to overemphasize personality characteristics of the subject in deference to possible environmental factors).

Between the New Medium and the Old

Author Mark Andrejevic begins his book with a brief depiction of reality television’s history in an attempt to develop a context for the way in which the medium has affected contemporary culture. Although Andrejevic makes some astute observations about the nature of reality television, he also overemphasizes the power and presence of interactivity within the medium itself. Most notably, I would suggest that the “interactive” component of reality television rests on the ability of the broadcast medium to respond to viewer input primarily through text message votes, which inherently represents a number of limitations for any sort of feedback beyond voting.[1] In fact, the recent rash of interactive spots on reality television (ostensibly designed to keep viewers from channel switching and to feel a connection to the program) often take the form of a viewer poll that has no real effect on the content of the show itself, unless the show is specifically designed to include viewers’ votes as part of the process.

Moreover, Andrejevic’s initial mention of Ana Voog is counterproductive as it blurs the line between social media and reality/interactive television; this overlap is something that Andrejevic continually attempts to sort out throughout his chapter without ever clearly differentiating. For example, reality television understandably presents the image that fame is achievable by all, through its elevation of the “everyman”—which in and of itself may be a contrivance—but Andrejevic aligns this democratization with the leveling power of social media which promotes access in a different way for different reasons. Andrejevic does however correctly speak to the ways in which social media has the potential to redistribute power in society (e.g., consumers are no longer passive and are, in fact, also the producers) but misses the larger idea that true power now rests in the hands of those who control the means and modes of distribution; platforms like Google, YouTube (which happens to be owned by Google), iTunes, and the discussion surrounding net neutrality indicate that filters and access represent the current revolutionary battlegrounds[2].

Further muddling the issue, Andrejevic’s argument for the “work of being watched”—that the same technology providing us with a more personal experience (labeled “participatory interactivity”) can be used against us (“productive surveillance”)—is not untrue but also aligns much more closely with social media than reality television, with one notable exception (2004).[3] Andrejevic accurately describes reality television’s ability bargain with its viewing audience:  fame and fortune can be had in exchange for access to personal details and a sense of intimacy. This point is not insignificant as when looking around at the current media landscape, we can see that we have entered into a culture of mediated confession, where individuals treat their secrets, tragedies, and identities like commodities to be sold on the open market.[4]

[1] Contrast this with the growing ability of television shows to respond to and adapt based on Twitter feeds (as one example), which represents a form of social media. This potential to interact in a practical way does not manifest meaningfully in the area of reality television as a stand-alone construct, unless, again, we consider voting as a meaningful expression of voice.

[2] Even though YouTube had not been launched when Andrejevic’s book was written, the debate surrounding Napster should have indicated that control over distribution and access was going to be a point of contention that incorporated many of Andrejevic’s points regarding consumers as the new producers.


[3] The debacle with Facebook’s Beacon and other forms of tracking outside of reality television seem to possess much more of an ability to develop modes of interaction and also commodification of our personal information for marketers.


[4] Consider talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury Povich along with reality fare like Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition and it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that we have become a culture that rewards the exploitation of personal tragedy. I would also add that Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition has the unfortunate side effect of raising the social norm for adversity with its constant portrayal of incredibly devastating circumstances.

Glitter and Grain

Juergen Teller, as described by Adrienne Lai, performs a rather atypical function in modern society:  through his images, the photographer renegotiates the social distance between celebrities and the public. After a brief mention of Leo Braudy’s history of images and their mechanical reproduction—which serves to provide a context for understanding a contemporary cultural climate that finds itself both saturated with images and, perhaps more importantly, mass produced and manufactured images—Lai discusses how modern celebrity photography often appears in service of brand construction or maintenance as it tries to capture the essence of the subject (2006).[1] Teller’s work, however, is positioned in opposition to both the glamour magazine photo shoot, with its inherent falsities and illusions, and the raw pictures of paparazzi (which I would argue also contain facetious elements as they present a skewed representation of reality that lacks context). As described by Lai, Teller’s photography represents the sort of intimacy that one would associate with a friend capturing a stolen moment (2006).

Significantly, the sense of intimacy engendered by Teller’s images serves to develop parasocial interactions as audiences begin to feel closer to the subjects. Through the witnessing of Teller’s work, the public can gain the perspective of a celebrity confidant—even if only momentarily—in a one-way expression of intimacy. This, to an audience that craves validation and recognition by stars, represents an authentic realness (and one distinctly different, Lai suggests, from reality television and the spin of mainstream media); Teller’s photographs speak to the “real” even though they are, by their very nature, constructed (Lai, 2006).


[1] Lai, A. (2006). Glitter and Grain: Aura and authenticity in the celebrity photographs of Juergen Teller. In S. Holmes, & S. Redmon (Eds.), Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (pp. 215-230). New York: Routledge.