There’s undoubtedly more to all of this that I’m missing, but I’m particularly interested in the developing themes of image, authenticity, and reputation this season—the show seems to have introduced a number of binaries, with the real/ugly truth hiding beneath a glossy exterior. There are echoes of this idea in the appearance of politics on the show, the faerie kingdom not being all it’s cracked up to be, and the banality of domestic life—I think about how vampires have, since the 1970s, struggled with their “true selves,” but now we see characters on the show struggling to articulate/see the true self. And then we get into issues of authentic self—do we cling to Greek notions of authenticity or embrace Goffman, who suggested that we can alter our presentation depending on our audience? Given that this is an election year, I’m curious to see how the show explores the manufacture and selling of reputation/image (and if it’s critical of this process).
I’m definitely curious to see how this season of True Blood progresses—at present, two vampires are launching competing PR campaigns to win back support after a rather violent/graphic incident with a vampire played out on national TV and this has obvious resonance with the current state of affairs. But I’m in love with the concept of the faerie as the perfect supernatural creature to bring this idea to the forefront (my primary research focus is in Gothic horror with tangents in mythology, folklore, fantasy, and science fiction) as they are creatures whose entire existence is defined by their manipulation of image. Above and beyond your garden variety “trickster,” faeries are liminal beings who play with light and cause us to question if what we are seeing is real. The fae are sort of the original spin doctors, never lying but always twisting their words in ways that humans had not anticipated. The leap from this to a cynical view of politicians seems natural.
Moreover, in contrast to vampires and werewolves (including the historical antecedent of Jekyll/Hyde), who also embody a sense of duality, faeries do not seem to struggle with their natures–they are what they are–but they sow confusion for others. In a sense, this sort of makes me wonder if faeries can be considered authentic: if your nature is to deceive and you own up to that, aren’t you being true to yourself? Is it really their fault that we don’t fully understand just how dangerous/powerful they are?
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).