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). 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. 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.
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.
 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).