The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the

Gathered together in one place, for easy access, an agglomeration of writings and images relevant to the Rapeutation phenomenon.

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 4:32 am

by Daniel J. Solove
© 2007 Daniel J. Solove




Table of Contents:

Back Cover
1. Introduction: When Poop Goes Primetime
• Part 1: Rumor and Reputation in a Digital World
2. How the Free Flow of Information Liberates and Constrains Us
3. Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less
4. Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter
• Part 11: Privacy, Free Speech, and the Law
5. The Role of Law
6. Free Speech, Anonymity, and Accountability
7. Privacy in an Overexposed World
8. Conclusion: The Future of Reputation
About the Author
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 4:38 am

Back Cover:

Rife with examples of online gossip, rumor, and shaming, this engrossing book explores the profound implications of personal information on the Internet. Daniel J. Solove argues that unless we establish a balance between privacy and free speech, we may discover that the freedom of the Internet makes us less free.

"As the Internet is erasing the distinction between spoken and written gossip, the future of personal reputation is one of our most vexing social challenges. In this illuminating book, filled with memorable cautionary tales, Daniel Solove incisively analyzes the technological and legal challenges and offers moderate, sensible solutions for navigating the shoals of the blogosphere." -- Jeffrey Rosen, author of The Unwanted Gaze and The Naked Crowd

"Solove is an entertaining as well as a thoughtful writer. Much of Future is devoted to a detailed and often-amusing romp through the many disclosure debacles and privacy pratfalls of the digerati to date. Solove is a good storyteller, and he's got doozies." -- Michael Stern, American Lawyer

"A timely, vivid, and illuminating book that will change the way you think about privacy, reputation, and speech on the Internet." -- Paul M. Schwartz, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

"Timely and provocative, The Future of Reputation explores a principal dilemma of our age and provides a workable solution that may appeal to readers on both sides of the debate." -- Harvard Law Review

Daniel J. Solove is associate professor, George Washington University Law School, and an internationally known expert in privacy law.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 4:38 am


The idea for this book came to me soon after I began blogging in May 2005. I found blogging to be enthralling and invigorating. I was fascinated by the thrill of expressing my thoughts to a broad audience yet acutely aware of how people could be hurt by gossip and rumors spreading over the Internet.

In an earlier book, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, I explored how businesses and the government were threatening privacy by collecting massive digital dossiers of information about people. In that book, it was easy to take sides. I argued that information collection and use were threatening people's freedom and well-being, and that greater protection of privacy was necessary. When it comes to gossip and rumor on the Internet, however, the culprit is ourselves. We're invading each other's privacy, and we're also even invading our own privacy by exposures of information we later come to regret. Individual rights are implicated on both sides of the equation. Protecting privacy can come into tension with safeguarding free speech, and I cherish both values. It is this conflict that animates this book.

Although I advance my own positions, my aim isn't to hold them out as end-all solutions. The purpose of the book is to explore in depth a set of fascinating yet very difficult questions and to propose some moderate compromises in the clash between privacy and free speech. There are no easy answers, but the issues are important, and I believe that it is essential that we wrestle with them.

Many people helped shape the ideas in this book through conversations and helpful comments on the manuscript: danah boyd, Bruce Boyden, Deven Desai, Tom Dienes, Howard Erichson, Henry Farrell, Bill Frucht, Eric Goldman, Marcia Hofmann, Chris Hoofnagle, Orin Kerr, Ray Ku, David Lat, Jennie Meade, Frank Pasquale, Neil Richards, Paul Schwartz, Michael Sullivan, Bob Tuttle, Christopher Wolf, and David Wolitz. My research assistants, James Murphy and Erica Ruddy, provided helpful research and proofreading. A few passages in this book were adapted from my article 'The Virtues of Knowing Less: Justifying Privacy Protections Against Disclosure," 53 Duke Law Journal 967 (2003). My agent, Susan Schulman, believed in this book from the start and helped tremendously in bringing it to fruition. I would also like to thank Michael O'Malley at Yale University Press, who also believed in this project and gave me the opportunity to bring it to life, and Dan Heaton, for his thoughtful editing of the manuscript.

When quoting from blog posts, I have occasionally corrected obvious typos and spelling errors.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 4:43 am

Chapter 1. Introduction: When Poop Goes Primetime

It all began in realspace, on a subway train in South Korea. A young woman's small dog pooped in the train. Other passengers asked her to clean it up, but she told them to mind their own business. That's when it moved over to cyberspace and became even uglier.

Someone took photos of her and posted them on a popular Korean blog. A blog, short for "Web log," is a running online commentary about one's life or about the issues of the day. Another blogger, Don Park, explains what happened next:

Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog shit girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Requests for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture. All mentions of privacy invasion were shouted down .... The common excuse for their behavior was that the girl doesn't deserve privacy. [1]

Across the Internet, people made posters with the girl's photograph, fusing her picture with a variety of other images. The dog poop girl story quickly migrated to the mainstream media, becoming national news in South Korea. As a result of her public shaming and embarrassment, the dog poop girl dropped out of her university. [2]

The story of the dog poop girl wasn't known in the United States until Don Park wrote about it in his blog, Don Park's Daily Habit. [3] It became even more popular when the blog BoingBoing discussed the story. BoingBoing receives nearly ten million visits per month -- more than the circulations of many newspapers and magazines. [4] In no time, newspapers and websites around the world were discussing the story.

The story of the dog poop girl raises a number of intriguing issues about the Internet, privacy, norms, and life in the Information Age. Not picking up your dog's poop is bad behavior in most people's books, but was the reaction to her transgression appropriate? We all have probably engaged in rude behavior or minor wrongdoing. But is it going too far to transform the dog poop girl into a villain notorious across the globe?

The dog poop girl is just one example of a much larger phenomenon taking place across the Internet. Increasingly, people are exposing personal information about themselves and others online. We can now readily capture information and images wherever we go, and we can then share them with the world at the click of a mouse. Somebody you've never met can snap your photo and post it on the Internet. Or somebody that you know very well can share your cherished secrets with the entire planet. Your friends or coworkers might be posting rumors about you on their blogs. The personal email you send to others can readily be forwarded along throughout cyberspace, to be mocked and laughed at far and wide. And your children might be posting intimate information about themselves on the Web -- or their friends or enemies might be revealing your family secrets. These fragments of information won't fade away with time, and they can readily be located by any curious individual. Like the dog poop girl, you could find photos and information about yourself spreading around the Internet like a virus.

This is a book about how the free flow of information on the Internet can make us less free. We live in an age drenched in data, and the implications are both wonderful and terrifying. The Internet places a seemingly endless library in our homes; it allows us to communicate with others instantly; and it enables us to spread information with an efficiency and power that humankind has never before witnessed. The free flow of information on the Internet provides wondrous new opportunities for people to express themselves and communicate.

One of the digital posters of the dog poop girl circulating on the Internet

But there's a dark side. As social reputation-shaping practices such as gossip and shaming migrate to the Internet, they are being transformed in significant ways. Information that was once scattered, forgettable, and localized is becoming permanent and searchable. Ironically, the free flow of information threatens to undermine our freedom in the future.

These transformations pose threats to people's control over their reputations and their ability to be who they want to be. Will we enslave ourselves by making it impossible to escape from the shackles of our past and from the stain of gossip and false rumors? How much information should we know about each other? How do we allow people to control their personal information without curtailing free speech or stifling freedom on the Internet?

This book will take a journey through the ways in which private lives are being exposed online, and it will examine the implications. People have profound new ways to communicate, yet the gossip, shaming, and rumors that are being spread online are sometimes having devastating effects on people's lives. Should we do something to stop the exposure of private secrets on the Internet? Can we do anything? In this book I will propose a framework for how we can address these problems -- by recognizing a new and broader notion of privacy and by reaching a better balance between privacy and free speech.


About a decade ago, the Internet in its early days was greeted with a kind of euphoria. Its potential seemed to be boundless, and people viewed it as a wondrous zone of freedom. A few years later, the giddiness dimmed with foreboding. Commentators began to point out that the Internet wasn't inherently free -- it could be transformed into a radically controlled and restricted world. In 1999 the Internet law expert Lawrence Lessig declared in his famous book, Code: "We will see that cyberspace does not guarantee its own freedom but instead carries an extraordinary potential for control." [5]

Today, the Internet is no longer in its infancy. Although developed long ago by researchers, the Internet entered into popular usage in the mid-1990s. It is now maturing into its second decade in mainstream culture-its teenage years. The Internet indeed has proven to be a place of both rigid control and unbounded freedom.

This book focuses on the free dimensions of the Internet. The future of the Internet involves not only the clash between freedom and control but also a struggle within the heart of freedom itself. The more freedom people have to spread information online, the more likely that people's private secrets will be revealed in ways that can hinder their opportunities in the future. In many respects, the teenage Internet is taking on all the qualities of an adolescent -- brash, uninhibited, unruly, fearless, experimental, and often not mindful of the consequences of its behavior. And as with a teenager, the Net's greater freedom can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the offline world, the dog poop girl would have been quickly forgotten. The incident would have ended when she left the subway train. But the Internet enabled the few witnesses of her transgression to express their outrage to millions. Indeed, the Internet affords people unprecedented new ways to communicate with others. It has blossomed into a fantastic world of free expression, teeming with chatrooms, online discussion groups, and blogs, which are proliferating at a breathtaking rate. Everyday people express themselves to a worldwide audience, something never before possible in the history of humankind.

In May 2005 I became a blogger. Within an instant, I could publish virtual op-eds to the entire world. Billions of people potentially could access my thoughts. The blog I posted on was visited thousands of times a day. A lot of people were reading. What made this so exciting was that I'd never had any success getting an op-ed published. I had tried many a time, but the editors just wouldn't give me a plot of valuable space on their pages. Suddenly I no longer need them. I can get my thoughts out far and wide without their help.

Blogging brings instant gratification. I can quickly work up my thoughts into a post and publish them to the website for the world to read. People then post comments, and I can have a discussion with them. Blogging has allowed me to explore many an idea that might have languished in a forgotten corner of my mind. In fact, this book was inspired by my blog post about the dog poop girl case.

Blogs are everywhere these days. There are blogs about virtually any topic under the sun. Dogs and poop are both popular topics for blogs. A blog called Doggie News gleefully reported the dog poop girl story. [6] There's a blog purportedly written by dogs called Blogdogs. [7] There's even a blog about poop called Poop Report. [8] Needless to say, the dog poop girl story was a big scoop for Poop Report. [9]

It is hard not to get excited about these developments, to see the great freedom and power that the Internet can provide to everyday people. But while many bloggers talk about politics, books, music, dogs, or other topics, a large number of bloggers enjoy speaking about their personal lives, their sexual experiences, the people they know, and even the girl on the train who wouldn't clean up after her dog. Details about many people's private lives are finding their way onto the Internet, often without the subjects' knowledge and consent. And in a number of cases, the consequences for these people are severe. As people use the freedom-enhancing dimensions of the Internet, as they express themselves and engage in self-development, they may be constraining the freedom and self-development of others -- and even of themselves.


In the dog poop girl case, people harnessed the power of the Internet to enforce a norm -- the obligation to clean up after one's dog. Norms are "social attitudes of approval and disapproval," the law professor Cass Sunstein writes. Norms specify "what ought to be done and what ought not to be done." [10] Norms bind societies together; they regulate everyday conduct; they foster civility. They are the oil that reduces the friction of human interaction. We need to maintain norms of courtesy so that we can all get along nicely. Imagine if we didn't have norms like first-come, first-served. Fisticuffs would quickly follow. In short, norms are a central mechanism through which a society exercises social control.

To be effective, norms must be regularly followed. If people flout norms and get away with it too often, norms can weaken and lose their influence over behavior. When somebody butts in line, many people usually just grumble under their teeth, but there are a few folks who confront that norm violator. These "norm police" help enforce norms, and they are essential to ensuring that norms remain strong.

The dog poop girl violated a norm that most people would agree with, but were the norm police too harsh in punishing her? Most norm enforcement involves angry scowls or just telling a person off. The blogosphere can be a much more powerful norm-enforcing tool, allowing bloggers to act as a cyberposse, tracking down norm violators and branding them with digital marks of shame. Having a permanent record of norm violations is upping the sanction to a whole new level.

Don Park's blog contains some interesting comments by his readers about the dog poop girl. [11] Some commentators were sympathetic to her plight, likening the attacks on her to a "witch hunt." But others celebrated her shaming. One theme is responsibility. In the words of one commentator:

Every once in a while, it's good for someone who is an ass to be shown as an ass. Whether to a small group or large crowd. She needs to learn to be accountable, whether in front of 5 people or 5,000,000 people. It's really all the same. Manners are manners.

Another commentator opined:

In the old days, people conformed to societal expectations and norms based on the feedback they got from those around them. These days, especially in large urban areas where anonymity prevails, most people seem to be afraid to criticize anyone for anything. Maybe now technology will provide a way to reinstate that societal feedback. I doubt this episode would have occurred in a small town where everyone knows everyone and such actions would have resulted in immediate consequences.

Yet another remarked:

Lack of personal responsibility is the problem here. And it's really prevalent these days.

It is certainly true that the Internet better enabled people to hold the dog poop girl responsible for her behavior. People who act inappropriately might not be able to escape into obscurity anymore; instead, they may be captured in pixels and plastered across the Internet. They'll be held responsible for their actions. But perhaps responsibility cuts both ways. Shouldn't the cyberspace norm police also have responsibilities? What if they get out of hand? What if they wrongly accuse somebody? What if their shaming punishes a minor transgression too much?


A common thread running through the comments about the dog poop girl is that she should expect no privacy because she was in public. One commentator wrote:

The initial blogger. Do I think he had every right to post her? Yep. She was in public, and it really doesn't matter if she was in from of 100 or 1,000,000 people, she was willing to act that way in the public sphere.

Under existing notions, privacy is often thought of in a binary way -- something is either private or public. According to the general rule, if something occurs in a public place, it is not private. But a more nuanced view of privacy suggests that this case involved taking an event that occurred in one context and significantly altering its nature -- by making it permanent and widespread. The dog poop girl would have been just a vague image in a few people's memories if it hadn't been for the photo entering cyberspace and spreading around faster than an epidemic. Despite the fact that the event occurred in public, was there a need for her image and identity to be spread across the Internet?

Yet another commentator stated:

I really don't think it matters that it came out on the internet. It happened in a public place so it is excusable to discuss it in a public forum. This isn't going to ruin her life, it might make her clean up her dog's mess for a month though while the story goes around. We are a fickle bunch and she will be forgotten before the end of the season.

But this comment is inaccurate. She will not be forgotten. That's what the Internet changes. Whereas before the girl would have been remembered merely by a few as just some woman who wouldn't clean up dog poop, now her image and identity are eternally preserved in electrons. Forever, she will be the "dog poop girl"; forever, she will be captured in Google's unforgiving memory; and forever, she will be in the digital doghouse for being rude and inconsiderate. The dog poop girl's behavior was certainly wrong, but we might not know the whole story behind the incident to judge her appropriately. And should people's social transgressions follow them on a digital rap sheet that can never be expunged?

The easy reaction is to steel ourselves and chalk it up to life in the digital age. But the stakes are too high for that. We perform an enormous range of activities in public. Do we want to live with the risk that people can snap our picture wherever we are and put it up on the Internet? We expose a litany of personal information as we go about our daily lives. Do we want it to be permanently posted online for the world to see? Consider the thoughts of another commentator to Don Park's blog:

It reminds me of the struggles that editors face when deciding about what pictures to run in the newspaper. Those editors need to make a judgement call based on the value of the picture and its relevance to the story. But here, the person was outraged and ran the picture of the girl. That's totally different. It shows the dangerous flip side of citizen media. Moral outrage is easy to flame. But the consequences can be mortal. Will the ease in inciting moral outrage create a mob driven police state? It may be when the powerful realize how they can use citizen "reporters," to influence mobs. That seems to be one of the real dangers of citizen journalism.

Similarly, Howard Reingold, author of Smart Mobs, a book about the blistering speed of modern communications, observes: "The shadow side of the empowerment that comes with a billion and a half people being online is the surveillance aspect. ... We used to worry about big brother-the state-but now of course it's our neighbors, or people on the subway." [12]

Compounding the problem is the fact that the norms of the blogosphere are just developing, and they are generally looser and less well defined than those of the mainstream media. The author of an article in the Columbia Journalism Review declares: "We've seen blogs act as media or political watchdogs, but not as aggressive watchdogs of individual violations of social norms. So this seems like a notable step. And, as with the emergence of 'citizen' journalism, it is an undefined and unregulated step in a cyberworld that lacks boundaries and standards." [13] Thus cyberspace norm police can be extremely dangerous- with an unprecedented new power and an underdeveloped system of norms to constrain their own behavior.


Generation X. Generation Y. These are yesterday's labels. They don't really capture who we are today. We are Generation Google.

Google is a search engine, a website that combs through the Internet looking for all other Web pages that contain the term you're searching for. Without search engines, the Internet would be an endless expanse of digital babble, and finding any particular piece of information would be akin to locating a specific grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. Since its creation in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two students at Stanford University, Google has quickly risen to become the leading search engine. [14] It can search billions of Web pages in just a fraction of a second. Google presents search results in a rank ordering calculated to put the most relevant results at the top of the list.

Want to know about a person? No need to hire a private investigator. Just go to type a name into the search box, hit the search button ... and presto, you've got a list of Web pages with information about that individual. Google is so popular it has become a verb. To "google" someone doesn't mean anything kinky -- instead, it means to do a search for his or her name on the Web. Everybody's googling. People google friends, dates, potential employees, long-lost relatives, and anybody else who happens to arouse their curiosity.

Many of us today -- especially children and teenagers -- are spending more of our lives on the Internet. And the more we're online, the more likely details about our lives will slip out into cyberspace. This risk is increased because it is not just we ourselves who might leak information -- data about us can be revealed by our friends or enemies, spouses or lovers, employers or employees, teachers or students ... and even by strangers on the subway. We live in an age when many fragments of information about our lives are being gathered by new technologies, horded by companies in databases, and scattered across the Internet. Even people who have never gone online are likely to have some personal information on the Internet.

The Google search prompt

Details about your private life on the Internet can become permanent digital baggage. For example, a story in the Boston Globe Magazine discusses the plight of a thirty-four-year-old professional named Michael. [15] Michael was briefly in prison when he was a juvenile. While in prison, he wrote a few articles about it in specialized journals. These articles now come back to haunt him. They are pulled up anytime somebody does a Google search for his name. Michael is single, and his Google baggage travels with him on most dates. On the first or second date, most women start interrogating Michael about his stint in prison. As Michael explains: "When you meet someone ... you don't say, 'I had an affair one time,' or 'I was arrested for DUI once,' or 'I cheated on my taxes in 1984.''' Even when people don't ask him about his past, Michael's digital skeletons continue to affect him. Whenever there's an awkward silence in a conversation, Michael thinks the worst: "Instead of thinking, 'Was I curt last week?' or 'Did I insult this political party or that belief?' I have to think about what happened when I was 17." In one instance, Michael was interviewed several times for a job when, suddenly, the potential employer stopped calling him. "[Michael's] hunch: Someone Googled him. But the worst part is, he'll never know." Michael's problem is not that he is embarrassed by his past or wants to escape from it. Rather, he resents having to constantly justify himself and explain his past. Worse still, he is rarely afforded the opportunity to explain.

From the dawn of time, people have gossiped, circulated rumors, and shamed others. These social practices are now moving over to the Internet, where they are taking on new dimensions. They transform from forgettable whispers within small local groups to a widespread and permanent chronicle of people's lives. An entire generation is growing up in a very different world, one where people will accumulate detailed records beginning with childhood that will stay with them for life wherever they go. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was forced by her colonial New England village to wear a scarlet letter A to represent her sin of adultery. The Internet is bringing back the scarlet letter in digital form -- an indelible record of people's past misdeeds. One commentator to Don Park's post about the dog poop girl said it best: "Right or wrong, the internet is a cruel historian." The Internet is indeed a cruel historian. Who wants to go through life forever known as the dog poop girl?

In this book, I discuss a litany of instances like the dog poop girl, in which rumors, gossip, or shaming on the Internet have had poisonous effects. I argue that we must protect privacy to ensure that the freedom of the Internet doesn't make us less free. But to do so, we must rethink our notions of privacy. We must also balance the protection of privacy against freedom of speech. And we must find a workable way for the law to achieve these goals. I shall propose ideas for how these goals can be achieved.

The book has two parts. In the first part I discuss how rumors, gossip, and shaming are being transformed when they take place online. In Chapter 2 I explore the new ways we're disseminating information -- through blogs, social network sites, and other means. Increasingly, this information consists of personal details about people's lives. It is far too simplistic to conclude that this is good or bad -- it is both. We rely upon information about people to help us assess their reputations. We want to give people some control over their reputations, but not so much that they can deceive or manipulate us. The rapid spread of information on the Internet makes establishing this delicate balance all the more challenging.

Chapter 3 is about gossip. There's a voyeur in all of us, and we often have a gluttonous curiosity about the lives of others. Gossip isn't inherently good or evil -- it has its virtues as well as its vices. On the Internet, however, gossip is being reshaped in ways that heighten its negative effects and make its sting more painful and permanent.

In Chapter 4 I explore a related practice of spreading information -- shaming. Like gossip, shaming has long served as a common practice to keep people from violating society's rules and norms. Shaming helps maintain order and civility. Yet when transplanted to the Internet, shaming takes on some problematic dimensions.

After examining in Part I the good and bad aspects of spreading personal information over the Internet, I turn in Part II to the question of what ought to be done about the problem. What makes the issues so complex is that there are important values on both sides. Protecting people's privacy sometimes can be achieved only by curtailing other people's free speech. Some commentators and lawmakers are quick to take sides, strongly favoring privacy or free speech. The difficulty is that we often want both. Unlike many conflicts, in which we can readily pick a side, there is no clear winner in the battle between privacy and free speech. Both are essential to our freedom.

In Chapter 5 I discuss how the law can strike a balance between allowing people to express themselves online and preventing them from revealing personal information about others. The difficulty is finding the proper role for the law to play. Too many legal restrictions or lawsuits will chill speech and stifle freedom on the Internet. On the other hand, if the law is held at bay, there will be little to prevent people from injuring others by releasing their secrets to the world. The law must take a middle path, but there's another treacherous pitfall in the road: the law can be slow and costly. In this chapter, I suggest a way for law to address the problems productively yet with moderation.

I turn in Chapter 6 to the tension between privacy and free speech. Freedom of speech is a fundamental value, and protecting it is of paramount importance. Yet, as I argue, privacy often furthers the same ends as free speech. If privacy is sacrificed at the altar of free speech, then some of the very goals justifying free speech might be undermined. Current law, unfortunately, tends to side too frequently with free speech, leaving privacy underprotected. I propose a way to balance privacy and free speech that enables them to coexist without making undue trade-offs.

The focus of Chapter 7 is privacy. One of the challenges we face in today's exposed world is that information is rarely completely hidden. Many of our comings and goings occur in public places, where technology enables them to be more easily recorded. We often share private information with others who might betray us and spread it online. Is it possible to protect privacy in public? Once we've shared information with others, can it still be private? How much control ought we to have over our personal information? In this chapter I explore these questions and propose a new way of understanding privacy, one that is more fitting to the world we live in.

I conclude the book by examining in Chapter 8 what the law can and cannot do. As important as it is to explore law's potential, it is equally important to recognize the law's limitations. The law alone cannot be the cure-all. While the law can take a more active role in preventing people from revealing the secrets of others, it will have great difficulty in stopping people from exposing details about themselves. Although the law might not be the answer in this situation, there are other ways to make headway in addressing the problem. Nevertheless, any solution will be far from perfect, as we are dealing with a social tapestry of immense complexity, and the questions of how to modulate reputation, gossip, shame, privacy, norms, and free speech have confounded us for centuries. These age-old questions, however, are taking on new dimensions in today's digital era, and it is imperative that we grapple with them anew.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 9:26 pm


Part: One Rumor and Reputation in a Digital World

Chapter 2: How the Free Flow of Information Liberates and Constrains Us

The Internet allows information to flow more freely than ever before. We can communicate and share ideas in unprecedented ways. These developments are revolutionizing our self-expression and enhancing our freedom.

But there's a problem. We're heading toward a world where an extensive trail of information fragments about us will be forever preserved on the Internet, displayed instantly in a Google search. We will be forced to live with a detailed record beginning with childhood that will stay with us for life wherever we go, searchable and accessible from anywhere in the world. This data can often be of dubious reliability; it can be false and defamatory; or it can be true but deeply humiliating or discrediting. We may find it increasingly difficult to have a fresh start, a second chance, or a clean slate. We might find it harder to engage in self-exploration if every false step and foolish act is chronicled forever in a permanent record. This record will affect our ability to define our identities, to obtain jobs, to participate in public life, and more. Ironically, the unconstrained flow of information on the Internet might impede our freedom. How and why is this happening? How can the free flow of information make us more free yet less free as well?

Movable type: the fifteenth century


Movable Type: Then and Now

For centuries, books had to be painstakingly copied by hand, but in the mid-fifteenth century, Johann Gutenberg's printing press revolutionized the distribution of information. [1] The printing press worked through movable type, characters and letters that could be moved into different positions. The impact of this invention was astounding.

In more recent times we have witnessed the development of new forms of media, from the radio to the television, each ushering in profound changes in the way we communicate and receive information. Along with these technological innovations, the media have grown in dramatic fashion. Even with the printing press, printed matter was still for the elites, as most people were illiterate. But as literacy became more common, and as the costs of printed material declined, the print media underwent a dramatic revolution. In the United States before the Civil War, newspapers were scarce. In 1850 about one hundred papers had eight hundred thousand readers. By 1890 nine hundred papers served more than eight million readers -- an increase of 900 percent. [2]

Movable Type: the twenty-first century. "Movable Type" and the Movable Type logo are trademarks of Six Apart, Ltd.

Today, the media's size and scope are even more vast. Hundreds of magazines are published on nearly every topic imaginable. We can choose from a smorgasbord of twenty-four-hour television news networks and copious news magazine shows such as Dateline, Primetime, 20/20, 60 Minutes, and more. But only a select few can utilize the mainstream media to express themselves. Ordinary people might be able to get a letter to the editor in the newspaper, but few can routinely have their thoughts printed in the papers. Most people can't appear on CNN whenever they have something to say.

On the Internet, anybody can now communicate his or her thoughts to the entire world. Individuals are taking advantage of this new breathtaking ability through blogs and other websites where they can express themselves. So we're back to movable type again, but of a different sort: one of the blogging services today is named Movable Type. We're living in the next media revolution. This time, we are the media. [3]

Blogging Hits Primetime

Blogging is the rage these days. We all can be pundits now, sharing our thoughts and pictures with a worldwide audience. Bloggers pride themselves in being different from the mainstream media. Unlike the mainstream media, blogs are more interactive. Readers of blogs can post comments and have discussions. Debates occur between different blogs. In short, blogs are more akin to an ongoing conversation than to a mainstream media publication or broadcast. As the professors and popular bloggers Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell observe: "Blogging as an activity is almost exclusively a part-time, voluntary enterprise. The median income generated by a weblog is zero dollars; the number of individuals in the United States that earn their living from blogging is less than twenty. Despite these constraints, blogs appear to play an increasingly important role as a forum of public debate, with knock-on consequences for the media and for politics." [4]

Blogs are more egalitarian than the mainstream media. You don't need connections to editorial page editors to get heard. If you have something interesting to say, then you can say it. Many popular blogs are created not by celebrities or professional writers but by everyday people. And bloggers have served as a critical voice to the media, uncovering blunders and omissions in many mainstream media stories. [5] Drezner and Farrell note that "there is strong evidence that media elites -- editors, publishers, reporters, and columnists -- consume political blogs." Editors at major newspapers say (confess) that they read blogs. Drezner and Farrell explain that the media is paying attention to blogs because bloggers can provide special expertise on certain issues, blogs can be an inspiration for story ideas, and bloggers often get their opinions out faster than the mainstream media pundits. [6]

Blogging 101: How to Become a Blogger in Less than Three Minutes

Do you want to become a blogger? Well, you're in luck. You don't need to apply anywhere. You don't need to pay anything. Nobody can turn you down. All you need to do is go to one of the popular blogging websites, and you can set up an account for free (or at most, a few bucks per month). Some popular blogging websites include Blogger or TypePad. To set up your blog, you merely need to choose a name for it and a template for its look and style. In less than three minutes, you'll become a blogger, and with the click of a mouse, you can broadcast your thoughts live to the entire planet.

I still can't contain my amazement about these developments. Never before in history have ordinary people been able to reach out and communicate to so many around the globe. Of course, just because you now have the power to reach a worldwide audience doesn't mean that anybody will be reading. You need to attract some attention. To do that, you must have something interesting to say so others start blogging about it.

Each entry you write in your blog is called a "post." To post on your blog, you log in and write whatever you want. You can add pictures too. You then hit the publish button, and in a magic instant, your thoughts travel from your computer to the vast expanses of cyberspace. Each post is displayed chronologically on the website, with the most recent post appearing first.

Google's, which enables anyone to create a blog for free

You also can permit readers to add comments to your post. If you allow comments, readers' reactions to your post will appear below your text. A blog post can inspire some fascinating discussions. I really enjoy reading the comments to my posts and hearing people's responses. It is a form of instant feedback I rarely receive when I publish an article.

Bloggers, Bloggers Everywhere

It seems as though everybody's blogging these days. The person you're dating might be blogging a running commentary about your relationship. Your spouse might have a blog. Your employees might have one too -- or your boss. Your child might have a blog. Maybe even your dog. According to one estimate, about 20 percent of teens with Internet access have blogs. [7]

The entire universe of blogs is collectively referred to as the blogosphere. The blogosphere is big. There were about 50 blogs in 1999, a few thousand in 2000, more than 10 million in 2004, and more than 30 million in 2005. [8] By the end of July 2006 there were approximately 50 million blogs. [9] According to Technorati, a website that tracks blogs, each day brings 175,000 new blogs and 1.6 million new blog posts. [10]

Blogs in All Sizes, Shapes, and Colors

This chart from Technorati illustrates the increase in blog postings

Blogs range from the profound to the frivolous and cover nearly every topic, from music to celebrities to politics to sex to health to law. Among the more colorful blogs, The Daily Rotten covers "news you cannot possibly use." [11]

Wonkette dishes on inside-the-beltway gossip. [12] Gawker reports celebrity gossip from Manhattan. [13] Overheard in New York supplies snippets of dialogue that bloggers overhear during the day. [14] The Superficial posts paparazzi photos of celebrities, including shots of celebrities caught in the nude. [15] And then there are blogs that are downright bizarre. One blog has a section called "Steve, Don't Eat It," in which a blogger discusses his experiences trying such unusual foods as pickled pork rinds, Beggin' Strips for dogs, breast milk, and fermented soybeans. [16] There's a blog with videos of people crying while eating. [17] If these blogs are too odd for you, there's a blog called The Dullest Blog in the World with posts entitled "scratching my knee," "looking at a wall," "moving an item from one place to another," and "turning off a light." [18]

Beyond topical blogs, many keep blogs about the various events in their lives. A high-priced London call girl created a blog called Belle de Jour chronicling her life. She parlayed it into a book deal, and her blog will be made into a television drama. [19] People are starting blogs about coping with various illnesses, such as HIV and cancer. [20] Soldiers in Iraq are blogging about their experiences. A blog called DotMoms features the experiences of motherhood by a group of women. [21] At least one blogger chronicles his entire sexual history, with details about his more than two dozen sexual partners. [22] Other bloggers write about their daily activities and whatever thoughts are buzzing in their brains at the moment.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, blogs enabled survivors to post information about lost family members so that people could reconnect and find loved ones. [23] Blogs have even helped solve crimes. In one chilling instance, a blogger helped catch his own murderer. In a May 2005 post written just minutes before he was killed, the blogger wrote:

Anyway today has been weird, at 3 some guy ringed the bell. I went down and recognized it was my sister's former boyfriend. He told me he wants to get his fishing poles back. I told him to wait downstair [sic] while I get them for him. While I was searching them, he is already in the house. He is still here right now, smoking, walking all around the house with his shoes on which btw I just washed the floor 2 days ago! Hopefully he will leave soon. [24]

The man didn't leave soon; instead, he stabbed the blogger and his sister repeatedly with a butcher knife. The police located the murderer by reading one victim's final blog post. [25]

Blogs are blossoming across the Internet. They are increasingly being woven into the fabric of society, and they are starting to play a profound role in our lives.

Journalists or Diarists?

By enabling virtually anybody with a computer to disclose information to world, the Internet is dissolving the boundaries between professional journalists and amateurs. Glenn Reynolds, a law professor and author of the very popular blog Instapundit, extols the virtues of the amateur journalist in his book, An Army of Davids. With the growth of blogs, he observes, "power once concentrated in the hands of a professional few has been redistributed into the hands of the amateur many." Known as The Blogfather because he created one of the first blogs, Reynolds argues that "technology has made it possible for individuals to become not merely pamphleteers, but vital sources of news and opinion that rival large metropolitan publishers in audience and influence." For Reynolds, these developments are marvelous: "I don't think that weblogs and flash media will replace Big Media any time soon. But I keep seeing evidence that they're doing a better and better job of supplementing, and challenging, Big Media coverage. I think that's a wonderful thing, and it's one reason why I'm such an evangelist for the spread of enabling technologies like Web video and cheap digital cameras."

"The end result of the blog revolution," Reynolds continues, "is to create what blogger Jim Teacher calls 'we-dia.' News and reporting used to be something 'they' did. Now it's something that we all do." [26] Indeed, some bloggers even received media credentials to report on the 2004 Democratic national convention. [27] U.S. senators are beginning to hold press conferences with bloggers.  [28] Reynolds views blogging as a development that enhances the freedom of the little guy: "We're likely to see an army of Davids taking the place of those slow, shuffling Goliaths." [29]

But who's David? Glenn's vision of the blogger is rather romantic. The average blogger, however, isn't a journalist. According to one estimate, more than 50 percent of blogs are written by children and teenagers under age nineteen.  [30] The most common blogger is "a teenage girl who uses the medium primarily to communicate with five to ten friends." [31] Many blogs are more akin to diaries than news articles, op-ed columns, or scholarship. According to one survey, bloggers most commonly write about their personal experiences (37 percent), while only 11 percent blog about politics. [32] In other words, David is more of a diarist than a journalist. And that's why there's a problem. In lieu of diaries, people are blogging. And bloggers are getting younger and younger. One news article reports that even seven-year-old children now have blogs. [33] As people chronicle the minutia of their daily lives from childhood onward in blog entries, online conversations, photographs, and videos, they are forever altering their futures -- and those of their friends, relatives, and others.


In addition to blogs, social network websites are emerging as a way people are sharing personal information online. These websites allow users to post a profile of themselves and link to the profiles of friends. The first social network websites emerged in the mid-1990s. Today there are more than two hundred social network websites. [34] Popular sites include My5pace, Facebook, Xanga, LiveJournal, and Friendster.

Cartoon by Jim Borgman, © King Features Syndicate, reprinted with permission

Social network websites are designed around the concept of social networks. A social network is a web of connections, such as a group of people who associate together. [35] Although we often cluster together in groups, our social circles are nor isolated. Some of the people we know are likely w be friendly with people in a different social circle. We're all connected in some way to each other. If I don't know you personally, there's still a good chance that at least one of my friends knows one of your friends.

In 1967 a psychologist named Stanley Milgram carried our a fascinating experiment w determine just how connected two strangers might be w each other. He selected a target person in Boston and gave letters to some randomly selected people in Nebraska. The letters were to go to the target in Boston, but each person could forward the letter only to people he or she knew personally. Surprisingly, it only took an average of six steps for the letter to get from the randomly selected recipients to the target person in Boston. [36]

This phenomenon has been described with the phrase "six degrees of separation," which originated in a play by John Guare in 1990. A character in the play observes: "Everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on the planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice .... It's not just the big names. It's anyone. A native in a rain forest. A Tierra del Fuegan. An Eskimo. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people." [37]

Social network sites attempt to embody these concepts. Through them, networks of friends and acquaintances can interlink their profiles, share personal information, and communicate with each other. MySpace, currently the most popular social network website, was created in 2003. MySpace profiles can contain a ton of data, including phone numbers, email addresses, hobbies, religion, sexual orientation, political views, favorite television shows, and more. People can post photos and videos on their profiles. Each user has space for a blog, including a section where friends post comments. People often use their real names for their MySpace profiles.

To create a profile, a user must claim to be fourteen years of age or older. The profiles of users under age sixteen are private, but those older than sixteen can make their profiles available to the public. MySpace skyrocketed in popularity in part because it gave users a wide range of choices about how to develop their profiles. People create elaborate designs for their pages, decorating them with graphics and giving each a distinctive look and style. As one student said: "MySpace gives you more freedom to express yourself." [38]

In just a few short years, MySpace has expanded exponentially. By August 2006 MySpace had surpassed 100 million profiles. [39] It is growing by 230,000 new members each day. [40] With its viral growth and astounding size, My- Space was sold to media titan Rupert Murdock in 2005 for about $580 million.  [41]

The social network component to MySpace involves the way people can link their profiles to those of their friends. There is a place on a person's profile called "Friend Space," which contains links to the profiles of a person's "friends" and often a picture of each friend. At the top of the Friend Space section is a tally of the total number of friends in the person's network. A "friend" on a social network site is not necessarily a close friend, as many people try to inflate the number of their friends by adding total strangers to the list. [42]

In realspace social networks, people have different kinds of ties with others. "Strong ties" are close connections (very close friends and relatives); "weak ties" are looser connections (acquaintances and others with whom people might have marginal contact). But according to the computer scientist Ralph Gross and the economist Alessandro Acquisti, social network websites "often reduce these nuanced connections to simplistic binary relations." [43] Few social network sites allow users to distinguish between close friends and mere acquaintances.  [44]

The researchers Judith Donath and danah boyd question the quality of one's ties in social network sites; they argue that "the number of strong ties an individual can maintain may not be greatly increased by communication technology ... [but] the number of weak ties one can form and maintain may be able to increase substantially." [45] As Gross and Acquisti note, people's online social networks may be only an "imaginary" community because "thousands of users may be classified as friends of friends of an individual and become able to access her personal information, while, at the same time, the threshold to qualify as a friend on somebody's network is low." [46] Although MySpace allows users to keep their profile private or share it only with a few friends, most have their profile set to be fully accessible to the public. Profiles also appear in Google search results.

Another popular social network site is Facebook, used primarily by high school and college students. Facebook was created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard University student, and its popularity fueled phenomenal growth. Just a few weeks after Facebook was launched, more than half the undergraduates at Harvard had created an account. Facebook soon began allowing students at other schools to sign up, and by the end of 2004 more than a million students had accounts. [47] Facebook continued to expand in 2005, adding thousands of colleges from around the world and more than twenty-five thousand high schools. By the end of 2005 it had more than eleven million accounts. [48] About twenty thousand new Facebook accounts are being created each day. In one study, more than 80 percent of college freshman signed up for Facebook accounts before the first day of school. [49] At many schools where Facebook is available, almost every student has an account.  [50]

As on MySpace, Facebook users create profiles with personal information. According to one study of Facebook users at a particular school, the profiles "provide an astonishing amount of information: 90.8 percent of profiles contain an image, 87.8 percent of users reveal their birth date, 39.9 percent list a phone number ... and 50.8 percent list their current residence." [51] Moreover, "Facebook profiles tend to be fully identified with each participant's first and last names." [52] Facebook profiles have a feature called "Photo Albums," where users can post photos. Friends can post photos on each other's profiles. According to a study of users at one university, over the course of eight weeks, the total number of pictures grew from about ten thousand to eighty thousand, averaging more than twenty pictures per person. [53]

Social network websites are fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon. The social network website Orkut, for example, is immensely popular in Brazil. Named after its creator, the Google software engineer Orkut Buyukkokten, Orkut attracted more than eleven million Brazilian users as of mid-2006. [54] Although Orkut is run by Google in the United States, the majority of its users are in Brazil. To become a member of Orkut, a person originally had to be invited by an existing member, but Orkut later dropped the invitation requirement.  [55] Orkut states that its "mission" is to "help you create a closer, more intimate network of friends" and "put you on a path to social bliss." [56] Orkut allows users to form various "communities" -- special forums for users with similar interests -- and it lets people rank their friends based on familiarity, trustworthiness, coolness, and sexiness. Orkut is also very popular in India, where about four million people have accounts, constituting more than 11 percent of Internet users in the country. [57] Social networking is taking off in India, which has a rapidly growing number of people online and many widely used sites, such as Fropper, Jhoom, Minglebox, and more. [58] In Canada the networking sites Piczo and Nexopia are widely used. [59] Launched in Spain, the site Adoos has been spreading quickly in South America. [60]

In Europe, Passado is one of the more popular sites, providing users with "ways to interact with one another such as blogging, photosharing, forums and broadcasts." Based in London, Passado has become widely used in Germany, Spain, and Italy, where it has more than five million members. [61] In the United Kingdom, the social network website Bebo has become very trendy. As of late 2006 it had more than twenty-two million users. [62] And in 2006, along with MySpace, Bebo was one of the most frequently searched words in Google. [63]

In Asia several social network websites are hugely popular. In Japan, Mixi (meaning "I mix") has attracted 6.5 million member as of late 2006, making it one of the most visited websites in the country. [64] In China the popular sites are Mop and Cuspace. [65] In South Korea, Cyworld reigns supreme, with an astonishing 92 percent of people in their twenties having an account, as well as 30 percent of the total population. [66] Cyworld encourages its users to place their personal information online: "Upload your photos, drawings and images -- we give you unlimited storage so you can save and display as many as you want." [67] Cyworld also has websites in China, Japan, and Taiwan. When Cyworld became available in China, one million people joined within six months. [68] By the end of 2006 Cyworld had about nineteen million Korean accounts and three million Chinese accounts. [69] Frequent users of Cyworld are referred to as "Cyholics." [70]

In short, there are social network sites in all shapes and sizes, and they are sprouting up around the globe. There are social network sites for Dogs (Dogster) as well as for Cats (Catster). [71] And not to be left out of the fun, even hamsters have their own social network website. [72]


With blogs and social network sites, personal information is being posted online at a staggering rate. Given the ease at which information can be recorded and spread, there will be more instances when information we want to keep on a short leash will escape from our control. There are a number of well-known instances where people have had the misfortune of sending an email to the wrong people. One such email gained Internet infamy in 2003. A law student was working for a powerful New York law firm as a summer associate, a rather cushy job where firms try to recruit future attorneys by indulging them with expensive food and drink. One afternoon, after a nice long lunch, the student fired off this email to his friend:

I'm busy doing jack shit. Went to a nice 2hr sushi lunch today at Sushi Zen. Nice place. Spent the rest of the day typing emails and bullshitting with people. Unfortunately, I actually have work to do -- I'm on some corp finance deal, under the global head of corp finance, which means I should really peruse these materials and not be a fuckup ....

So yeah, Corporate Love hasn't worn off yet. ... But just give me time.

At the bottom was his name and his contact information. Another email followed a few hours later:

An apology

I am writing you in regard to an e-mail you received from me earlier today.

As I am aware that you opened the message, you probably saw that it was a personal communication that was inadvertently forwarded to the underwriting mailing list. Before it was retracted, it was received by approximately 40 people inside the Firm, about half of whom are partners.

I am thoroughly and utterly ashamed and embarrassed not only by my behavior, but by the implicit reflection such behavior could have on the Firm.

The email goes on for several more painful paragraphs. This incident demonstrates how easy it is for private communications to find their way into the wrong inboxes. But if this wasn't enough embarrassment, the email and the apology soon became the toast of the Internet. They were reproduced in all their glory, with the person's full name included, on numerous websites. The incident became so well known that the New Yorker ran a story about it. [73] If you run a Google search on the person's name, you can still pull up the emails in an instant.

Of course, it is easy to say that the student should have been more careful. But we're accustomed to living at a hyper pace these days, launching emails at breakneck speed. Leaks and miscues are bound to happen. Sometimes information winds up online because we put it there intentionally; sometimes it is accidental; and other times, it is put there without our knowledge and consent.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Tue Oct 08, 2013 9:32 pm



The proliferation of personal data on the Internet can have significant effects on people's reputations. As the sociologist Steven Nock defines it, a "reputation" is "a shared, or collective, perception about a person." [74] Our reputations are forged when people make judgments based upon the mosaic of information available about us.

Our reputation is one of our most cherished assets. As the Book of Proverbs states: "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches." [75] In William Shakespeare's Othello, Cassio, whose reputation is ruined by the evil plotting of Iago, laments: "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of my self and what remains is bestial." [76] John Proctor, in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, refuses to sign a false confession that he engaged in witchcraft, opting instead to be hanged. Similar to Cassio's lament in Othello, Proctor declares: "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" [77] Proctor would rather perish than sacrifice his reputation. Proctor recognizes that he cannot function within the community without his good name.

Our reputation is an essential component to our freedom, for without the good opinion of our community, our freedom can become empty. "The desire of the esteem of others," wrote President John Adams, "is as real a want of nature as hunger." [78] The sociologist C. F. Cooley famously pointed out that we form our own selfhood based on how we think others perceive us. Cooley's theory, which he called the "looking glass self," has become widely accepted by social psychologists. [79] Our reputation can be a key dimension of our self, something that affects the very core of our identity. Beyond its internal influence on our self-conception, our reputation affects our ability to engage in basic activities in society. We depend upon others to engage in transactions with us, to employ us, to befriend us, and to listen to us. Without the cooperation of others in society, we often are unable to do what we want to do. Without the respect of others, our actions and accomplishments can lose their purpose and meaning. Without the appropriate reputation, our speech, though free, may fall on deaf ears. Our freedom, in short, depends in part upon how others in society judge us.

Reputation and Accountability

Although we want some degree of control over our own reputation, we also want to know the reputation of others. While privacy gives people greater control over their reputations, it also "makes it difficult to know others' reputations." [80] We have a lot at stake in our relationships with others, and we are vulnerable to great loss if we are let down or betrayed. In many circumstances, we look to people's reputation to decide whether to trust them. As the sociologist Francis Fukuyama defines it, "Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of members of that community." [81] Nock observes: "Trust and the ability to take others at their word are basic ingredients in social order. If we never knew who to trust, could never be sure that what we were told was true, or that promises made would be promises kept, there would be little to bind us together or make groups cohesive." [82]

The economist Avner Greif provides a fascinating account of reputation and trust when he discusses the Maghribi traders, a group of Jewish merchants who bartered along the Mediterranean during the eleventh century. [83] To carry out their business, the Maghribi traders depended upon agents to help store, transfer, and sell goods. There was a constant danger, however, of agents embezzling and cheating. Most relationships between agents and traders weren't based on contracts, and the law played virtually no role in regulating their relationships. Nevertheless, the Maghribi traders managed to ensure that agents rarely cheated. The Maghribi simply established a rule that they would never employ an agent who had cheated. A dishonest agent could not move to another trader after cheating a Maghribi trader because information about the agent's untrustworthiness would readily be shared. The Maghribi traders thus used gossip to keep the agents honest. Agents depended upon having a good reputation in order to stay employed, and they knew that if they cheated, they would be held accountable.

Thus, beyond allowing individuals to guard against dealing with dishonest people, reputation also functions to preserve social control. By ensuring that people are accountable for their actions, reputation gives people a strong incentive to conform to social norms and to avoid breaching people's trust.

From the Small Village to the Global Village

In earlier times, people lived in small villages, and they had firsthand knowledge of one another. All villagers were well known, people's pasts were common knowledge, little was private, gossip spread across the village quickly, and social norms were strongly enforced through shame. People could readily assess one another's reputations.

Today we live in a vast and impersonal society. People are highly mobile. Urbanization and population growth have made communities larger and more diffuse. The sociologist Robert Putnam notes that civic life has been deteriorating -- we're increasingly "bowling alone." [84] People have gradually been withdrawing from involvement in community affairs. In the urban jungle, we are lost amid a sea of unfamiliar faces. We often don't even know many of the people who live on our block, let alone in our building -- or even next door. Studies have pointed out a breakdown in social norms and an increase in rudeness and uncivil behavior. In a 2005 poll, for example, about 70 percent of respondents believed that people are more impolite than a generation ago. [85] Trust is declining. [86] Modern life has made various social ties more diffuse; we interact with many strangers and often lack adequate information to assess their reputations. [87]

Despite these transformations, we have nevertheless found a way to evaluate reputation in contemporary society -- by assembling fragments of personal data. Credit reporting agencies, for example, provide a standardized way to assess our financial reputations. They provide reports to our creditors with an extensive compilation of information about our financial dealings, assets, and transactions. Credit reporting agencies and other companies also provide heaps of data about individuals for employer background checks. As Nock observes, these new reputations "do not depend on a particular locale or group. They follow us as we move and they are accessible when they are needed. They can be altered, or created, in a matter of minutes." [88]

At the dawn of the computer age, Marshall McLuhan predicted that new electronic media would bring the world closer together into a "global village." [89] The Internet is the fulfillment of his prophecy. People scattered across the globe can now all congregate together in cyberspace to share ideas and information. Ironically, the global village leads us toward a future that revives part of the past -- life in the small village of several centuries ago. With the prevalence of cell phone cameras, people can no longer engage in social infractions without risking being caught in the act. No longer can people hide in obscurity and escape accountability for their actions. People can readily document and record each other's norm violations, and they can then post them online.

The global village not only revives features of the small village but also amplifies and alters them in profound ways. The global village is worldwide and it encompasses millions of people. The people of the global village have weak rather than strong ties; they are often known not for their whole selves but for various information fragments others hastily consume.

In the past, oral gossip could tarnish a reputation, but it would fade from memories over time. People could move elsewhere and start anew. The printed word, however, was different. As Judge Benjamin Cardozo wrote in 1931: "What gives the sting to writing is its permanence in form. The spoken word dissolves, but the written one abides and perpetuates the scandal." [90] In the past, people could even escape printed words because most publications would get buried away in the dusty corners of libraries. The information would be hard to retrieve, and a sleuth would have to devote a lot of time to dig it up. The Internet, however, makes gossip a permanent reputational stain, one that never fades. It is available around the world, and with Google it can be readily found in less than a second.

Why Should We Be Able to Control Our Reputations?

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. As one person in the nineteenth century put it: "A man's character is what he is; a man's reputation is what other people may imagine him to be." [91] 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.

Since reputation plays such a dramatic role in our lives, we naturally desire to have some control over it. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted: "Society has a pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing attacks upon reputation." [92] The law, in fact, allows people to protect their reputations from being sullied by falsehoods. But why? Since reputation is bestowed upon us by others in society and consists of what others think about us, why should we have a right to control it at all?

Under one theory of reputation, the law professor Robert Post observes, it is a form of property. People earn the esteem of others by "the fruit of personal exertion." [93] Indeed, people work hard at building a reputation in society; and it can often be among a person's most valuable assets. One reason to protect reputation, then, is to preserve the years of effort people put into developing it. Another theory of reputation, Post notes, is that we protect it in the name of human dignity. [94] As Post explains, the "dignity that defamation law protects is thus respect (and self-respect) that arises from full membership in society." [95] We protect people from having their reputation unjustly ruined because we respect their dignity.

Another reason to protect reputation is that the stakes are so high. In the past, a false rumor could prove deadly. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, more than five hundred thousand people were burned in Europe for witchcraft, more than 90 percent of them women. [96] In America the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 were fueled by rumors and falsehoods. Today reputation still plays an enormous role in our lives, even if not for life-or-death stakes. Our reputation matters quite a lot to us, but it also matters a lot to others in society, who use it to determine whether to trust us. Wrongful and undeserved polluting of a person's reputation not only has devastating consequences for that person, but it also prevents others from accurately judging that person.

A person's reputation is often far from accurate. "Reputation is an idle and false imposition," the villain Iago asserts in Shakespeare's Othello, "oft got without merit and lost without deserving." [97] Indeed, Iago deviously destroys people's reputations, and he recognizes how fragile, manipulable, and inaccurate reputation can be. Good people can have bad reputations and bad people can have good reputations.

When an individual has a better reputation than deserved, it might be the result of essential facts being concealed from the calculus. We're constantly putting on a show for others, trying to hide our warts and present ourselves at our best. Judge Richard Posner contends that privacy allows people to "conceal information about themselves that others might use to their disadvantage." [98] Similarly, the legal scholar Richard Epstein contends that "the plea for privacy is often a plea for the right to misrepresent one's self to the rest of the world." [99] Is there a justification for allowing people to conceal information about themselves that will lower their reputations? It is one thing to ensure that the information factored into the assessment of a person's reputation is truthful; it is quite another to allow people to hide true information that could sully their reputations. Does privacy enable people to be seen in a better light than they deserve? Does privacy undermine our ability to know people for their true selves? We might be entitled to have falsehoods about us cleansed away, but are we entitled to a reputation free from the stain of truths? I will explore these questions in the next chapter.

We can't stop others from judging us, and ultimately, we have only a limited degree of control over our reputations. Once information about us finds its way into the minds of others, we can't control what they think about it. Our ability to exercise control consists of being able to limit the circulation of information about us. The key question is how much control we ought to have over the spread of information about us. We don't want to provide too much control, as this will allow people to trick us into trusting them when they don't deserve it. Too much control will also stifle free speech, as it will prevent others from speaking about us. Hence the conflict: we want information to flow openly, for this is essential to a free society, yet we also want to have some control over the information that circulates about us, for this is essential to our freedom as well.


Although we're getting a lot more good information via the Internet, we're also getting a lot more bad information. On the Internet, we constantly live in a twilight between fact and fiction. We're often exposed to information that we can't entirely trust. In a world where it is difficult to separate the true from the false, rumor and defamation can readily spread, and the Internet can be used as a powerful tool to launch malicious attacks on people and ideas. With modern computer software, anybody can readily create convincing counterfeit images and doctor photographs. Anybody can dexterously concoct fake documents. It is now easier than ever to fabricate and forge.

With the Internet, false information can spread much more rapidly. In 1996 a false rumor about the clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger erupted on the Internet. According to the rumor, Hilfiger said: "If I had known that African- Americans, Hispanics, and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice." The rumor also had Hilfiger confirming on the Oprah Winfrey show that he had made the statement, leading Winfrey to demand that he leave. The rumor sent Hilfiger's company into a tailspin. But Hilfiger hadn't even appeared on Oprah, nor had he made the offensive remarks. Winfrey announced on her show that the rumor "is nor true because it never happened. Tommy Hilfiger never appeared on this show. Read my lips, Tommy Hilfiger has never appeared on this show. All of the people who claim that they saw it, they heard it -- it never happened. I've never even met Tommy Hilfiger." [100]

Katie, an eighteen-year-old who lived in a small town about two hours from Denver, Colorado, learned firsthand the power of false rumors on the Internet. An attractive blonde, Katie was an honor student and prom queen. Like almost everyone else in town, she was shocked when on July 4, 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a nineteen-year old woman from the same small community. The identity of Bryant's accuser was kept confidential. The mainstream media for the most part kept her identity secret because of a common rule of journalistic ethics nor to reveal the identities of sexual assault victims. But immediately, speculation as to her identity erupted on the Internet. Then Katie became ensnared in the story.

One website named Katie as Bryant's victim. The report, however, was false. Initially, Katie thought it was simply a harmless mix-up. Katie and the victim weren't far apart in age; they went to the same high school; and they lived in the same small town. But Katie didn't realize how fast information moves on the Internet. Within a short time, the information migrated to numerous websites and chatrooms. Her picture was posted around the Internet, emblazoned on one page with the caption "WHORE ALERT." Some websites manipulated images to depict her engaging in sex with Bryant. The Internet cackled with vile and graphic comments about her. Katie said: "It didn't really hit me that hard, just because it was one site .... So I thought, you know, we live in the same town so maybe people just mix up the girls or whatever. But, after a couple of days it wasn't just on one site anymore." [101]

Katie was devastated by the frenzy about her on the Internet. "I was really upset by the whole situation," she lamented. [102] "It's hard knowing that when people think about Kobe's accuser, I'm the face that everyone think[s] of," she remarked in another interview. "I feel violated. I want it to be known that these pictures aren't of the right girl, and I want them removed." Katie's mother was also deeply affected: "I was furious. I'm a helpless mother and my daughter is smeared all over the Internet." Katie's mother contacted many websites asking them to remove Katie's name and photos. Some did, but others didn't. One website owner replied: "In this day [and] age, there is no privacy." [103]

"The fragments of people's lives that emerge on the Internet are somewhat haphazard," one journalist aptly observed. "They can be incomplete, out of context, misleading or simply wrong." [104] In the past, rumors and falsehoods would readily spread around the small village, but the Internet lacks the village's corrective of familiarity. In the small village, people had a long history together and knew the whole story about an individual. But now someone reading an online report about some faraway stranger rarely knows the whole story -- the reader has only fragments of information, and when little is invested in a personal relationship, even information that is incomplete and of dubious veracity might be enough to precipitate ridicule, shunning, and reproach.

The rapid information-spreading power of the Internet can be a virtue too. Judge Richard Posner points out: "The blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission." [105]

Posner is certainly right -- information does speed around the Internet at a breakneck pace. Errors can get corrected quickly. The best thing to do when faced with a malicious rumor is to spread correct information as rapidly as possible.

This works well when we clearly know the truth about something or someone. But what about when we don't? And what happens when facts are posted online that while true, are also of a private nature? With false information, the record can eventually be set straight. But with true information, there's no way to put the secret back in the bag.


Combine all the information available about people on the Internet-some of it true, some of it false -- with our insatiable curiosity and desire to glean information about others, and some troubling implications emerge. Increasingly, information fragments about people on the Internet are used to make judgments about them.

Employers are looking at social network site profiles of prospective employees. [106] Microsoft officials admit to trolling the Internet for anything they can find out about people they are considering for positions. [107] After a promising interview with a college student for a summer internship position, a company president checked the student's Facebook profile. The student listed his interests as "smokin' blunts" and having a lot of sex. He didn't get the job. [108] Facebook profiles are more restricted than MySpace profiles; access is limited to students. But some employers have kept their accounts after graduating, and other employers have students who work for them check the profiles of prospective employees. [109] Some big corporations are using software to systematically monitor employee blogs. [110]

One young woman was quite surprised when her employer began talking to her about her Friendster profile. [111] But people might never find out if an employer looked at information about them on the Internet. Many employers won't ask a person in a job interview about the story behind his or her half-naked photos on the Internet. Indeed, it can be quite awkward to confront people about the weird things you find out about them online. People just don't get the job or don't even get called in for an interview. The information about a person on the Internet can thus be a secret job killer.

A professor writing under the pseudonym Ivan Tribble notes that before hiring new professors, administrators at his college google each candidate and scrutinize the results: "Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know 'the real them' -- better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn't want to know more." Our "quirks," Tribble writes, are best kept hidden, "not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read." [112]

To make matters worse, the information that emerges in a Google search of a person's name might not all relate to that person -- it could pertain to other people with the same name. Or it could be spoofed. In one case, students created a fake MySpace profile under their principal's name with pornographic photos and offensive comments. [113]


One blogger, Heather Armstrong, achieved fame for being fired from her job because of her blog, Her firing became so well known throughout the blogosphere that the term dooced was coined to describe losing one's job because of one's online postings. Today her blog is one of the most popular on the Internet, receiving fifty-five thousand visitors per day. [114] She has blogged about her family, her pregnancy, her bouts with severe constipation, and her postpartum depression. [115] But it was blogging about her work experiences which ultimately got her fired. Among other things, she wrote:

I hate that one of the 10 vice-presidents in this 30-person company wasn't born with an "indoor" voice but with a shrill, monotone, speaking-over-a-passing-FI6 outdoor voice. And he loves to hear himself speak, even if just to himself. ... Lately, he's been an authority on patently grotesque facial hair patterns ....

I hate that the Enabling Producer enables nothing but my never-ending agony, that she never knows what she wants and so gives directions as vague as, "Mock up something that, you know, says something," without even telling me what I'm supposed to say something about. [116]

An anonymous person emailed her supervisors about her blog, and they weren't pleased. As Heather wrote about her firing: "Essentially, they explained, they didn't like what I had expressed on my website. I got fired because of" Heather tried to defend herself by pointing out she had never mentioned anybody or the company by name, but to no avail. In the end, however, she couldn't quarrel with her firing: "I made my bed; I'll lie in it, to quote the inimitable Courtney Love. I understood the risk when I wrote certain things about certain figures that key members of my company might discover my website and pooh-pooh my endeavors." [117]

But not everybody knows the risks of exposing themselves online. Many individuals are teenagers and college students, who may not consider the consequences. Moreover, many people are not simply self-disclosing in their blogs. Heather's blog contained information about her coworkers, and much of the information people post online involves not just themselves but their friends, teachers, parents, employers, and others. One college professor discovered to her dismay that a student filmed her class and posted it on YouTube, a popular website where people can upload videos and others can watch them for free. [118] In 2006 Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion. [119] Anybody can post videos of anybody else on YouTube. People can post pictures of you or write about you in their blogs. Even if you aren't exhibiting your private life online, it may still wind up being exposed by somebody else.

Doing a Background Check on My Admirer

Shortly after my book The Digital Person came out in 2004, I received an email from a reader who expressed great admiration for it. The reader, whom I'll call John Doe, said that he was sending copies to a few of his high-powered friends, one of whom was a U.S. senator. Needless to say, I was quite flattered. His email signature indicated he was the "spokesman" for a large data security company.

I emailed him back and thanked him for the praise. We had a number of friendly email exchanges, and he wanted to chat with me on the telephone about various privacy issues. It was at this point that I became interested in finding about more about him and his company. His email signature didn't include a website for his company, so I did a search for it online. I couldn't find an official website for his company. I thought this was quite odd, since most major companies have a website. I then did a search under John Doe's name. Google pulled up some disturbing posts about John in an online discussion group. One member of the group indicated that John had been removed from the discussion list. Among the information I found were these remarks:

One aspect of the John Doe phenomenon is that I have never, ever seen anything -- not a web page, not a news report, not a public filing, not a friend, no nothing -- that suggests anyone's seen anything from John Doe or Doe's company except for email and (sometimes) a voice on the telephone.

In another discussion thread, I found these comments:

This is just a reminder that Doe's company does not exist, that John Doe is not to be taken seriously, and that he speaks only for himself and not for a group of over 100,000 people. Frankly it is sad, and I wish he would get help. Regular readers will ignore his inane ramblings, but new readers may be tricked into replying. Among the "nutsy-cukoo" things he has said in the last few weeks are: That he met personally with President George Bush in Waco Texas and that he is having secret email conversations with government officials. Here is the rest of the FAQ:

Who is John Doe? John Doe has claimed in postings to various lists:

-to be the Chief Executive Officer and the Co-Founder of [a] 4.8 billion dollar privately-held employee-owned company ....

-to be an ex-IBM Fellow,

-to have three degrees, MBA, Masters in Computer Science and Engineering, and Law

-to have served as a judge for 7 years

-to be the author of two books and is working on a third ....

-to have been acting squadron commander of the Marine combat F4 squadron
VMF214 (Black Sheep) at Tan Son Nhut during the Viet Nam war. ...

-Retired Colonel, United States Marine Corps-to own 8% of eBay [120]

The comments went on and on. In some of the material I found on John Doe, there were replies by John. Here's one:

Can you prove any of these statements? I am quite sure you cannot. Please refrain form making false statements in the future.

So here I was, doing a makeshift background check on a person. Online, it's often hard to find out if people are who they say they are. There are many people I know only through email. I read blog posts by pseudonymous authors and reply to comments to my own posts that are by anonymous individuals. A lot of my interactions today are with people I've never seen or heard or met. Having information about others helps us establish trust, especially online, where we often don't meet people in person.

But can we trust the information about people that we find on the Internet? Although John seemed suspicious, the comments about him also seemed to lack credibility. Who goes through all the trouble to discredit a person in a discussion group? Was the poster of these comments about John Doe credible himself? I had to make a judgment, and I didn't trust either John or the antagonist documenting John's purported lies. The easiest thing to do was just to walk away. I ultimately decided not to call John. His background seemed too sketchy. Thus even dubious data about John deterred me from continuing to communicate with him.

Google was a useful tool for me in this situation. I was able to investigate John's reputation, and the information I learned helped me make a decision about whether to talk to him. But this incident made me realize that as strongly as I believe in privacy, the temptation to google people can be irresistible. You can certainly hope that nobody types your name into Google, but that hope is probably futile. At some point in your life, you're probably going to get googled, and the information that pulls up might affect what others think of you.


On December 12, 2004, a stocky nineteen-year-old teenager from New Jersey named Gary posted on the Internet a video of himself lip-synching and dancing to "Dragostea Din Tei," a Romanian techno song by the group O-Zone. Gary called his act the "Numa Numa Dance," a name based on some lyrics in the song. [121] As he sat in his chair in front of his computer, Gary danced before his webcam. In a very energetic way, he wiggled back and forth and pumped his arms enthusiastically to the techno beat of the song. The song was extremely catchy, and Gary's movements were quite humorous. He was so passionately engaged in the music that the video had a kind of charm. He submitted his video to a website where users post their videos, which are then made available on the website for anybody to view.

Almost overnight, Gary became a sensation. Soon the video had been downloaded about two million times. Gary appeared on Good Morning America, NBC's Tonight Show, and CNN. His video was shown on VH1. Soon the video had been downloaded more than seven million times. To put this number into perspective, a music CD reaches "platinum" status if it sells more than one million copies, which is a great achievement for any musician.

Then, suddenly, Gary decided that he hated the spotlight. According to a New York Times article ten weeks after Gary had posted the video, he "has now sought refuge from his fame in his family's small house on a gritty street in Saddle Brook. ... According to his relatives, he mopes around the house .... He is distraught, embarrassed." [122]

Can he take it all back? No. There's no going back. Numerous websites now host his video. It is splashed all across the Web. There are Numa Numa Dance parodies. Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, has an entry for the Numa Numa dance. There's even a fan website for Gary:

On this site I'll include everything we can find out about our favorite lip-synch icon, including photos, a biography, an annotated list of new videos, fan-created .mp3s, ... movie posters, breaking news, and more!

What Gary did can't be undone. And he was only nineteen years old when he did it. For most of us, the foolish things we do as teenagers disappear into oblivion and are revived only when we reminisce with old friends. But in today's world, foolish deeds are preserved for eternity on the Internet. They become what a person is known for. The world will always remember Gary as the Numa Numa dancer.

Gary's story has a happy ending. He resurfaced in the summer of 2006 with a new slick website designed by a media company and a new music video -- this time professionally produced. [123] Gary appears to have embraced his Internet fame. Many, however, have not.

Little Fatty

Qian was a pudgy sixteen-year-old in China. He was attending a traffic safety class when someone secretly took his photo. His face was round and plump, his cheeks were rosy, his eyes were looking sideways in a skeptical glance, and his small lips were in a pout. The photo began to circulate online, where Chinese Internet users became obsessed with it. People began to use Adobe PhotoShop to place Qian's face on a variety of different images. His face appeared on a variety of movie-poster mock-ups, ranging from the Harry Potter, Austin Powers, and Pirates of the Caribbean series to Brokeback Mountain, The Da Vinci Code, and more. Scores of celebrities were given Qian's digital countenance. He appeared on Buddha images as well as on photos of porn stars. In one image, his visage was carved into Mount Rushmore; in another picture, he was sitting next to President George W. Bush giving him rabbit ears; in yet another, his head was superimposed upon the body of Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco sequence. And so on. People began to call him Xiao Pang -- "Little Fatty."

One day, somebody told Qian that his photo was all over the Internet. Qian went to a cyber cafe and was stunned to find thousands of websites with his image. At first, Qian was devastated. "When I saw that I was angry and upset," Qian stated in an interview. "It was as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt," he said. "I felt really humiliated. I couldn't bear it and I left [the cyber cafe]."

Soon, Qian's fame began to spread even farther. People began to stop him on the street. At a concert, a group of girls wanted to take a photo with him. Throughout all this, Qian felt embarrassed and ridiculed.

Qian, however, later changed his perspective and began to take the events in stride. "Now my feeling has changed," he said in an interview. "If you always feel depressed, then you feel uncomfortable. Now I can view this event with a calm mind, and I feel released." Moreover, he noted, "I have tried to turn sorrow into strength. At least this makes people smile." He stated that for the most part, he had made peace with his newfound Internet fame: "I like it when they put me on the body of heroes, such as Russell Crowe in Gladiator. But I hate it when they place me on the shoulder of naked women or when the touch-up job is terrible."

Doctored image of "Little Fatty" (face obscured) next to President George Bush

Qian is now a star in China, though he still works at a gas station and doesn't make much money from his fame. He appeared on a popular Chinese talk show. And his fans continue to keep track of him. When Qian once mentioned in an interview that he liked the comedian Jim Carrey, people created Little Fatty posters of Carrey's movies. Without even being aware of it, Qian had become an icon throughout China. Fortunately, he made the best of it, but he had little alternative. [124]

The Star Wars Kid

Ghyslain was a stocky fifteen-year-old boy from Canada who was a fan of science fiction. You might already guess that he was classified as a nerd at school and teased. Today, Ghyslain is a worldwide celebrity, known by millions of people in all corners of the globe. Most know him as the "Star Wars Kid," although his full name readily appears on countless websites and news articles.

Still shot from the Star Wars Kid video (face obscured)

How did Ghyslain transform from a Canadian teenager into the Star Wars Kid? It all happened quite rapidly. In November 2002 he filmed himself at his school video studio pretending to fight an imaginary foe with a golf ball retriever as a light saber. [125] The video lasted about two minutes. Ghyslain twirled around waving the golf ball retriever frantically, making his own sound effects along the way, pretending to be a character from the movie Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace. [126] The character was Darth Maul, a menacing villain who wielded two light sabers connected at the handles to form a staff. Unlike Darth Maul, whose movements were gracefully choreographed, the Star Wars Kid made jerky and awkward movements, stumbling at some points.

Ghyslain didn't intend the video to be seen by anyone. He left the video on the shelf of the school's TV studio. The video languished there for several months, until April 2003, when another student discovered it. [127] The student shared it with others, and soon they converted it to digital format and posted it on an Internet file-sharing network, where anyone could download it for free. What happened next was amazing. It became an instant hit. Within days, the video was being discussed and posted on numerous websites. Countless people downloaded it.

But that wasn't the end of it. One blogger created an edited version of the video with music and special effects. The edited video began with the traditional Star Wars opening, with text streaming across outer space. The golf ball retriever was illuminated like a light saber, with sound effects added as Ghyslain swung it around. The remix of the video was adeptly done and was quite funny. In a matter of weeks, the original video and the remix were downloaded more than a million times from around the world.

Within no time, websites were barraged by postings making fun of the kid. At, one of the first websites to discuss the story, countless comments were posted. The author of the blog soon stopped allowing comments:

I've turned off new comments in this thread because of the mean-spirited tone, and deleted the most vicious comments. Yes, he's fat and awkward. We get it. Since 90% of the traffic to these videos is coming from gaming, technology, and Star Wars news websites, I'm guessing that most of you weren't any cooler in junior high school than this poor kid. All of you geeks, nerds, and dorks out there need to think twice before trashing one of your own. [128]

The worst comments have been deleted, but here is a taste of what remains:

I don't know which one is funnier, raw or remixed ....

How come this kid is still fat?

If there were more portly Jedis like that, I'd totally leave the dark side.

I dub thee Darth Haul.

Oh my God that is hilarious. I can't breathe!

It's like a bad train wreck ... you don't want to look at it, bur you just can't stop yourself.

Replica Jedi Staff $25; School Camera Rental Fee $5, Video Cassette $3, Making an ass out of yourself and having it spread across the internet ... priceless.

Wow. Simply put, this kid can 1) never live this down 2) never watch any thing [Star wars] related without thinking about his humiliation and 3) never run for president of any country ever. That poor poor boy.

The comments go on and on. One commentator at another website wrote: "The Internet makes fools into stars and stars into fools." [129] Soon the mainstream media found out about the story, and it was written up in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times. In that story, Ghyslain said: "People were laughing at me .... And it was not funny at all."' [130] Ghyslain transferred to another school. [131] Out of sympathy for Ghyslain's troubles, a blogger collected donations to buy Ghyslain an iPod music player.

The iPod was a small consolation prize for Ghyslain, who was deeply scarred by the incident. Students at his high school would start shouting "Star Wars Kid! Star Wars Kid!" as he walked by. According to Ghyslain, the torment was "simply unbearable, totally. It was impossible to attend class." He dropped out of his high school and had to seek psychiatric care. His family sued the students who placed the video online and the case eventually settled. To this day, Ghyslain has not spoken much about the incident publicly. [132]

Forever, Ghyslain will be known as the Star Wars Kid. There's even an entry under his name in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. [133] A search under his name or under "Star Wars Kid" pulls up countless hits on Google. Today, according to estimates, the video has become the most watched video on the Internet, having been viewed hundreds of millions of times. [134] Over at a website called The Screaming Pickle, you can watch one of dozens of versions of the video. [135] The website offers up a menu of videos to see:



Believe it or not, there's more.

And although it's two years since the original video made its rounds on the Internet, the Star Wars Kid is still a topic of discussion. In 2005 there was an online petition to persuade George Lucas to include the Star Wars Kid In Episode III, Revenge of the Sith:

We the undersigned, urge you to consider Ghyslain A.K.A. "Star Wars Kid" for a cameo in the upcoming Star Wars Episode III movie. [136]

The petition received more than 146,000 signatures, but it was unsuccessful. [137]

And recently posted a tribute to the Star Wars Kid:

It's been almost two years since the Star Wars Kid video, but the tributes keep coming .... Finally, because I get asked occasionally, I have no new Star Wars Kid news. He's never tried to contact me, and I haven't tried to follow up in any way. I don't know the outcome of the lawsuits or what Ghyslain is up to. If anyone out there knows, I'd love to know how he's doing. [138]

Whether you like it or not, whether you intend it or not, the Internet can make you an instant celebrity. You could be the next Star Wars Kid.


We live in exciting and wondrous times. The Internet and Google bring a library of data into all of our homes. The blogosphere is profoundly democratizing, giving anybody with something interesting to say -- or, for that matter, with anything to say -- a global voice. Blogs and social network websites enable people to express themselves like they've never been able to before. They encourage people to share their lives with strangers, to open up their diaries to the world. As one blogger wrote, blogging allows you "to discover yourself while discovering about other people's [lives]." [139] Blogging allows people to exchange experiences, and it holds out the possibility that many others might find a connection. Blogging represents the very best that communication has to offer. Bloggers who are great writers and storytellers find their calling; some begin writing books. Without blogging, they might never have realized that they had stories or ideas to share. These developments are incredible and dazzling.

But not so good if you're the Star Wars Kid or the dog poop girl. As we charge headfast into the future, as more details about our lives are captured in data fragments, as the blogosphere expands and draws more attention, what are the implications for our privacy? As we move into the future, new technologies of recording sound, images, and tracking people's whereabouts will further enable even more fragments of data about our lives to be captured and potentially disseminated online. In a short essay in the New Republic, Eve Fairbanks writes:

My generation is the first to have grown up with the Internet, and we see the online universe ... as a place where anything goes, where there is neither consequence nor shame, and where concerns about protecting your reputation are less, not more important. Teens blog details, true or made up, about their personal lives that their elders would have blushed to put in their diaries. Parents and teachers ... chalk this up to naivete, suggesting that, when these children grow up, they will be as concerned about privacy as past generations were. But maybe not. [140]

If Fairbanks is correct, then perhaps generations in the future will no longer expect much privacy. One might envision a future where we can finally be uninhibited and honest about ourselves. When everybody's warts are exposed, maybe people will stop readily condemning others, and the social norms that people enforce yet secretly transgress will gradually fade away.

Or not. Maybe the future will be one that is less free, where society is both oppressive and uncontrollable, where people are vulnerable to having their reputations destroyed in an instant, where mistakes in one's past can forever thwart opportunities in one's future.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Wed Oct 09, 2013 12:13 am


Chapter 3: Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less


Robert was an attorney employed by a U.S. senator. He had a slight crush on Jessica Cutler, a twenty-five-year-old staff assistant to the senator who had begun working there in February 2004. Robert had briefly met Jessica early on when Jessica began working, bur he rarely had contact with her since he worked in a different part of the office.

Jessica had recently moved to Washington from New York. Slender and attractive, Jessica was part Korean, part Caucasian. When she moved to D.C., she first lived with her boyfriend, but she grew bored with him and began to cheat on him. They broke up, and she moved our into her own apartment. [1]

On Thursday, May 6, a coworker told Jessica that Robert liked her and invited them both out for drinks at Union Station after work. Unbeknownst to Robert, Jessica had created a blog the day before, called The Washingtonienne, which was written in the style of a Washington "Sex and the City" column. The blog began like this:


I have a "glamour job" on the Hill. That is, I could not care less about gov or politics, but working for a Senator looks good on my resume. And these marble hallways are such great places for meeting boys and showing off my outfits.


According to Jessica, she created her blog to keep a few of her friends informed about her escapades. She didn't set up the blog so that only people with a password could read it because she thought it would be "too much trouble for my friends to have to type in a password." [2] She stated that she believed that her blog would be a needle in the electronic haystack of cyberspace.

On her blog, Jessica described the daily adventures in her life, which consisted of a lot of partying with various men. One of them was her ex-boyfriend, with whom she continued to have sex occasionally. Another was a staffer at a senator's office where she interned before getting her current job. Jessica was also sleeping with a man she described as a "sugar daddy who wants nothing but anal." And she was also involved with a married man, the chief of staff at a government agency who was paying her for sex. [3]

Before she left for drinks with Robert and their coworker on Thursday evening, Jessica dashed off a post to her blog. She wrote that Robert was a "new contender for my fair hand" and referred to him by his real initials. Jessica didn't seem all that excited about the evening, noting that it would be "full of awkward moments." But apparently the evening went better than Jessica had expected. In a post the next morning, she wrote about their sexual encounters that evening, including the fact that Robert was into spanking.

Robert began a relationship with Jessica. Things were moving fast. They were sleeping together and began seeing each other frequently. Robert wasn't aware of Jessica's other sexual exploits, and he had no idea that as their relationship began to develop, Jessica was blogging the intimate details. In one post, Jessica wrote that she and Robert went out for drinks after work and then went back to her place to have sex "every which way." That evening, Robert reported having heard that she had told a few friends in the office about his interest in spanking. Jessica confessed that she had told a few people, and Robert forgave her but told her to stop talking about it. But although Jessica stopped gossiping about it in the office, she continued to blog about her sex life with Robert. After writing about the fact that he "likes submissive women," Jessica quipped: "Good, now I can take it easy in bed. Just lay back and watch him do freaky shit."

Jessica blogged about Robert's difficulty using a condom. "I also learned that he was a cop," she wrote, "so he has scary police shit like handcuffs in his closet. He implied that we would be using them next time, which is intriguing." Jessica also recounted that they were beginning to like each other and mused about the future of their relationship, which was about a week old at the time. She wondered whether there was a future: "But can it go anywhere, i.e., marriage? 1don't know. He's Jewish, I'm not. And we have nasty sex like animals, not man and wife."

May 18 was the last day of their relationship. From Jessica's post that morning, it appeared that everything was progressing satisfactorily in her relationship with Robert. They had plans to go out that evening and continue celebrating Jessica's birthday.

But Jessica's blog was about to send everything into a tailspin. That day, the popular blog Wonkette linked to Jessica's blog. Wonkette is an inside-the-beltway gossip blog started by Ana Marie Cox, "a 31-year-old self-described failed journalist." [4] Wonkette is akin to a digital tabloid. The Village Voice declared that Wonkette "swims in the libidinal current of American politics." The New York Times called it "gossipy, raunchy, potty-mouthed." The conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called Cox "profanity-laced and sex-obsessed ... [a] vain, young, trash-mouthed skank." Wonkette's website proudly displayed these quotations and more. It received tens of thousands of visitors each day. [5]

Wonkette's posting on the morning of May 18 began like this:

A Girl After Our Own Heart (She's So Getting a Book Deal Out of This)

We realize that some of you who follow this link will never come back: Compared to our humble blog, Washingtonienne has half the politics and twice the ass-fucking.

Jessica's blog went primetime. When Jessica learned that Wonkette had linked to her blog, she quickly deleted it. [6] But it was too late. Tens of thousands of people had read it. Copies of it had already been archived. Robert came into Jessica's office with a printout of her blog, told her the relationship was over, and walked away. A few minutes later, the woman who had set Jessica up with Robert for drinks came into Jessica's office. The woman was furious. She told Jessica that she should leave. Jessica quickly slipped out of the office.

Three days after Wonkette had plugged Washingtonienne, on May 21, the senator's office put out a press release: "On May 18, 2004, our office became aware of allegations that an employee had been using Senate resources and work-time to post unsuitable and offensive material to an Internet Weblog .... The employee has been terminated." [7] Being fired was nothing new for Jessica. One of her friends said that "Jessica has been fired from more jobs than anyone I know." [8] The same day, Wonkette posted an interview with Jessica:


Wonkette spoke to Washingtonienne. Her name is Jessica Cutler. ...

Washingtonienne: Hello? Wonkette? This is the Washingtonienne!

Wonkette: Hi!

Washingtonienne: [Laughs]

Wonkette: You certainly are in good spirits.

Washingtonienne: Oh, this whole thing is so two days ago for me....

Wonkette: ... Now, first of all, is there anything you want people to know?

Washingtonienne: Uhm ... I'm not naming names. I'm nor ashamed of anything I wrote in the blog. And people are sad if they're interested in such a low level sex scandal. I wrote the blog not to ruin people's lives. It was just for the amusement of me and my friends. [9]

The incident was written up in most major newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. CNN discussed the story too. And, of course, the tabloids got into the action.

Life was good for Jessica. She was an instant celebrity, and she relished the attention. She went out partying with Ana Marie Cox, and they posed suggestively together in photos which were posted on Wonkette. She did television interviews and posed nude for Playboy. In 2005 she wrote a novel, titled The Washingtonienne, for which she received a $300,000 advance. A blurb on the book boasted: "The Capitol Hill aide who scandalized Washington, D.C., with her blog has now written a sharp, steamy, utterly unrepentant novel set against the backdrop of the nation's capital." Her novel was based in part on events discussed in the blog. The only drawback to Jessica's fame was that she had some trouble finding a new job in D.C., so she moved back to New York City. She also started a new blog called Jessica Cutler Online, where she currently blogs about sex, clothes, and partying. Her blog accepts donations. "I need money for slutty clothes and drugs!" Jessica implores. [10]

Life was good for the author of Wonkette, too. Her blog traffic shot up more than threefold, to more than 1.5 million visits in the month of May 2004. MTV asked Ana Marie Cox to help cover the Democratic National Convention. [11] She later wrote a novel, Dog Days, and became a columnist for Time magazine and its website. [12]

For Robert, life was not so good. In May 2005 he filed a lawsuit against Jessica, stating:

Cutler caused widespread publication of private intimate facts concerning Plaintiff in a manner that would be deemed outrageous and highly offensive to an ordinary reasonable person of average sensibilities, subjecting Plaintiff to severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and anguish ....

No reasonable person would want the intimate physical, verbal, emotional, and psychological details of his or her sexual life and romantic relationships life exposed against his or her will on the Internet for the entire world to read. It is one thing to be manipulated and used by a lover, it is another thing to be cruelly exposed to the world. [13]

The complaint was served on Jessica as she was giving a reading from her book at a Washington bookstore.

Playboy magazine asked Jessica: "What advice would you give to someone starting a blog?" Jessica replied: "With a blog, you can't expect your private life to be private anymore. You just never know. But, when you work on the Hill you find out the guy you've been sleeping with has told everyone in your office about it. So, what's the difference? It's writing on the bathroom wall." [14]

In another interview, Jessica said that she felt "really bad for the guys. They didn't deserve this." But she was enjoying her newfound fame: "Some people with blogs are never going to get famous, and they've been doing it for, like, over a year. I feel bad for them." According to Jessica: "Everyone should have a blog. It's the most democratic thing ever." [15]

Blogging School

While Jessica tells tales out of school, other bloggers are telling tales in school. In a development that sends shivers down my spine, students are beginning to blog about their professors. One of my colleagues, the George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr, tells an interesting tale. He's a blogger at the popular blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Here's what he writes:


This fall, I came across a pseudonymous GW 1L student blog, Idle Grasshopper. Mr. Idle Grasshopper blogged a lot about his professors (appropriately anonymized, but still recognizable to an insider), and I decided to tip off one of those professors so he could check out what the student was saying about him. That professor is one of GW's best young teachers, and Idle Grasshopper was appropriately wowed by his teaching -- and also a bit nervous about getting called on given the professor's demanding Socratic style.

My colleague started to visit the student's blog on occasion to see the student's reaction to class and also to see if he could figure out the student's identity. After visiting the blog on a semi-regular basis for a few months, he was able to piece together the evidence and determine who was Idle Grasshopper. He also realized that he had never called on the student in the course of the entire year (the course was Civ Pro [Civil Procedure], a year-long class). He decided not to call on Mr. Idle Grasshopper until the very last case on the very last day of the semester. And when he did, it was with a very cleverly crafted introduction:

Professor: So, Mr. [].

5tudent: Yes sir.

Professor: You've been sitting back there idle all year, laying low in the grass, but I'd like to put this seating chart in the hopper, so I thought I'd call on you. [16]

Here's what the student blogged about the experience:

PCP called on me today. Yep, I got cold called in CivPro. On the last day. The very last person to be called. But I wasn't just called. Oh no. As you can see from above, PCP called on me in a way that let me (and a few select others that know my semisecret identity and who were paying attention) know that he knows. About the blog. And about my identity. So I guess that makes this post an "I know that you know" post. ...

I'm not sure how I feel, knowing as I do now, that PCP has been reading my blog. Part of me is ... intimidated? ...

On the other hand, how cool is it that one of the best profs I'll have in law school (if not the best, but I've only had three so far, so the sample size is still too small) takes the time to not only read what I write, but also took the time to call on me in a way that took a tiny bit of effort to craft, while knowing that few, if any, of the class would find it humorous? Pretty freakin' cool. [17]

This incident ended happily, but one doesn't need an active imagination to think of more ominous ways students might blog about their teachers.

The Phantom Professor

A page from the Phantom Professor blog

What if teachers started blogging about the lives of their students? Actually, it has happened. One adjunct journalism professor was fired from teaching a course at Boston University for posting his thoughts about his first day of teaching. He wrote: "Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn't you know it?) is incredibly hot. ... It was all I could do to remember the other five students." [18]

Another instance involved a pseudonymous blogger at Southern Methodist University. The blog, called The Phantom Professor, was born in the fall of 2004.

The blog chronicled the daily happenings at SMU in a frank and uninhibited way. It related the stories of students' campus lives, including their views on having sex, using drugs, dealing with stress, and coping with eating disorders. The mysterious blogger expressed her own opinions about the students, especially rich female students whom she referred to as "the Ashleys." In one post, for example, she wrote about a student whom she admired:

She's not one of the Ashleys. She's a few years older and she's a minority. She has a husband and a baby ....

I have no doubt (hat, unlike the Ashleys who half-joke about being in college to "earn a Mrs. Degree," she'll be heading to grad school and a career in the academy. This young woman is a natural teacher with a real flair for research.

She's not like them at all. And for this one day, it got to her. Their Prada handbags and their SUVs (brand new, all filled with high octane charged to daddy's plastic) and their size o derrieres kept warm with pastel Juicy Couture sweats that show just a him of dorsal cleavage. She looked around at their perfect skin and their French manicures and it seemed suddenly unfair. [19]

In another post, she wrote about a student who had suffered a mental breakdown. In one instance, The Phantom Professor described a rich student who stopped by her office during office hours:

Kortney calls. I'd dub her one of the Ashleys -- those plastic girls tottering on $500 sandals, clutching their $1500 handbags-but try as she might, she'll never quite fit the mold. Her weight for one thing. Girls on this particular campus hover at near-skeletal levels. Kortney is on the chunky side. [20]

Although the blogger tried to hide the identities of those whom she spoke about, many people recognized themselves and others. Soon, some had figured out who the blogger was: Elaine Liner, a popular writing instructor. At the conclusion of the 2005 spring semester, she was asked not to return. [21]

Why did she decide to blog about campus life? "I felt I had so many great stories to tell about students," Liner said, "and this would be a way to start writing them .... I just have this compulsion to tell stories. I wanted to write from deep inside, to be the person in the back of the faculty meeting or the person listening to what was going on. I wanted to write about what people don't know about colleges." [22] In another interview, she explained: "I thought I was just writing funny, odd, touching little stories about my experiences on a campus and in a c1assroom." [23]

Some people supported her blogging. One said: "She tells the brutal truth, and I had a lot of emotions. But she's a writer and that's what she does and it should be supported." [24]

Not everybody is pleased with what Liner wrote about them. In comments to an article in Inside Higher Ed describing Liner's blogging adventures, a faculty member at SMU writes:

The physical descriptions were too close for many of our faculty and students to not know who was being discussed. And the rude remarks about a particular person's physical appearance was a kind of statement that can create hostile working environments. [25]

The Phantom Professor also wrote about fellow professors. She described an attractive male professor whom she called Hot Pockets, the efforts of female students to flirt with him, and his efforts to stop it. Another of Liner's posts described an African-American professor who was prized by the faculty as an up-and-coming star:

Wide load Professor Wideass had what she called her "Jerry Maguire" moment at the departmental faculty meeting yesterday. She's the newest tenure-tracker, fresh from a mediocre Midwestern university, with a Ph.D. in something no one cares about. She recently was named a "rising academic star" by some obscure journal. ... Wideass is a well paid full-timer with a secure future at the university and all the health benefits her plaque-laden arteries will ever need. We adjuncts are delighted to have discovered she is widely despised by the undergrads. [26]

Professor "Wideass" wrote in the comments to the article about Liner:

Her comments about my size, my recognition by the Chronicle of Higher Education, my alma-mater, and my values are painful, demeaning, and in all cases false (except I guess her depiction of my size ... )

Unfortunately, our students, those who are rich, as well as those who are poor, are simply undergraduates with an average age of 19. Many of them are not as well equipped to see their faults, their personal problems or those of their family written about so cavalierly and publicly by someone they trusted. [27]

The Phantom Professor raises a number of difficult questions about blogging. Her blog was a candid account of college life, and she told stories that often remain hidden. Pull back the curtains, and a lot of very interesting things can be revealed. And there are also free speech considerations. Doesn't Liner have the right to speak freely about things she feels strongly about? Doesn't she have the right to chronicle the troubling and sometimes unseemly events she witnesses in the lives of college students and professors? According to the author of the Inside Higher Ed article: "Rita Kirk, the department chairwoman, says that she received complaints about the blog from students and parents, and that she consulted with university lawyers about what to do about it. Kirk describes herself as a strong First Amendment supporter, but she says she worries that the blog violated students' privacy rights and upset some students. 'People need to remember that words can hurt,' Kirk says." [28] Words can certainly sting, but what about free speech? Then again, what about privacy? These are the difficult tensions increasingly arising as more people take to the blogosphere.

By way of postscript, after being fired, Elaine took a brief break from blogging and deleted some of the posts. But she then reposted a few of her old postings, and resumed blogging. The Phantom Professor lives on.


The mainstream media have ethical rules regarding people's privacy. These rules are flexible and permissive, but they are typically followed by most media entities. One rule is to avoid naming victims of rapes and sexual assaults. [29] But bloggers come in all shapes, sizes, and ethical configurations, and many don't follow any conventional code. There are few limits in the blogosphere. Moreover, the national news media don't talk much about local gossip. The talk at the water cooler about your coworker's extramarital affair often won't be of interest to CNN. But for bloggers, it's prime fodder.

Many blogs are primarily about political issues, current events, or other topics. But a sizable number of blogs consist of people's musings about their lives. People used to tuck their diaries away in drawers or lock them up, but now, they are sharing them with the public on the Internet.

Some people blog anonymously or pseudonymously; others blog in full exposure. According to a survey: "For the most part, respondents identified themselves on their blogs. 81% of participants said they used some form of self-identification: 55% used their real names, 20% used some variant of their names (only a first name, a nickname that friends knew, initials, etc.)." [30] As for the content of their blogs, 25 percent of bloggers in the survey noted that they frequently posted very personal details on their blogs. According to the survey, bloggers frequently wrote about other people they knew, but 66 percent never asked the permission of these people when they did so; only 3 percent routinely requested permission. Many explicitly identified other people on their blogs (21 percent) but more attempted to avoid identifying others (42 percent). As one blogger explained:

With work-related entries, I'll sometimes use only a first initial [to identify people.] I'm not overly-concerned since the people I write about don't know of my blog's existence and aren't particularly net-savvy. [31]

Schools are beginning to grapple with problems emerging from student blogging, a difficult issue since most blogging occurs outside of the schoolhouse doors. In one instance, two pseudonymous high school female students created a blog they called the Underground Newspaper, filled with the school's gossip. The students explained that they were fed up with the official school newspaper because it was too sterile. One of them said: "Everything's so positive when not everything about our school is positive." [32] The blog received 2,500 visits per month. But school officials contacted the girls' Internet service provider and had the blog shut down.

Nannies are beginning to blog too. One nanny blogged about the couple she worked for and discussed details about a squabble between them. She also revealed that she sometimes came to work with a hangover. When the couple discovered the blog, they fired her. [33]

One mother was shocked to discover that her thirteen-year old daughter had a blog. The daughter blogged about her life, included a list of her friends, and spiced it up with pictures. The mother also discovered that many of her daughter's friends had blogs too. And she was appalled at the pictures her daughter posted of herself and her friends: "Their pictures are very provocative. There's shots with their butt in the air, with their thongs sticking out of it. They squeeze their elbows together to make their boobs look bigger." [34]
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Wed Oct 09, 2013 12:15 am



In the past, gossip advanced slowly. We share information within social circles, which have boundaries. Traditionally, it has been unusual for gossip to leap from one social circle to another, because people in one group rarely know or care about someone in a completely different group. A person's coworkers make up one such social circle. Gossip often travels quickly throughout a workplace, since people work in the same building and have frequent encounters with one another. They are interested in information about fellow group members. Therefore, if one of them hears a juicy piece of gossip, he or she is more likely to spread it to other coworkers than to tell someone outside the group. But others outside the workplace might not care anyway. They might find the details of a particular salacious story to be interesting, but unless they know the person involved, they probably don't care at all about that person's identity.

Social Epidemics and Tipping Points

In The Tipping Point, the writer Malcolm Gladwell describes what he refers to as "social epidemics." He writes that the spread of ideas and information resembles the spread of epidemics of diseases. Change doesn't occur gradually but instead arrives at "one dramatic moment," which Gladwell calls a "tipping point." How does this phenomenon occur?

Gladwell explains that within social networks, certain people are "connectors" -- gregarious people who exist in numerous different social circles. Sociologists refer to them as "super nodes," hubs that link many clusters of people. "Most of us," Gladwell notes, "don't have particularly broad and diverse groups of friends." That's why connectors are so important. When information hits a connector, it spreads from one social circle to another. It is no longer contained within a particular group of friends but leaps into an entirely different clique. Gladwell gives the example of Paul Revere, whose famous horseback ride rapidly spread the word about the arrival of the British troops. Revere created a "word-of-mouth epidemic," spreading the news over "a long distance in a very short time, mobilizing an entire region to arms." Revere's ride was so successful because Revere knew tons of people from different social circles. [35]

As information spreads to greater numbers of people, it begins to proliferate exponentially. This process doesn't occur readily. A piece of information must be "sticky" -- that is, it must inspire people to keep talking about it. The information, in other words, must be "contagious." [36] When this process occurs, the spread of the gossip might reach a "tipping point," where communication boils over into an epidemic, and a rumor can spread to thousands of people.


The Internet develops by building electronic connections. For bloggers to attract readers, they need to get referrals from popular websites. When other bloggers find a post interesting, they will link to it. A "link" is a hyperlink, text that whisks you at a click to another webpage. The Web is interlaced with links, a giant latticework of connections between websites, where Internet traffic fires like synapses in a gigantic brain.

While most blogs languish in obscurity, tucked away in the shadows of cyberspace, some blogs are becoming powerful rivals to the mainstream media. Some of these blogs have tremendous audiences -- tens of thousands of visitors per day, hundreds of thousands, even millions, per month. When a link to a blog post or website appears on one of these websites, thousands of people will click on the link and read the post or site.

On Concurring Opinions, where I blog with a group of law professors, we have a "site meter" that monitors our readership. It measures how many times our blog is visited throughout the day; what posts people read; and what websites are referring readers to our blog. The chart below displays the number of visits to our blog each day over the span of a month. Notice the big spikes -- these are due to links from other blogs with big readerships.

Site meter graph for the Concurring Opinions blog

An interesting post can very quickly gather attention in the blogosphere. People on the Internet often act like locusts, swarming toward the latest interesting piece of data that attracts a buzz. One of the most popular blogs is called Slashdot, which provides technology news. When Slashdot links to a website, it generates so much traffic that it can cause the website to crash due to an overload of visitors. It's like having a stampede to your website. There's even a term for it -- it's called getting "slashdotted."

Gossip by Ear, Gossip by Electrons

In the offline world, rarely does gossip hit a tipping point. The process of spreading information to new people takes time, and friends often associate in similar circles, so most secrets don't spread too widely.

The Internet takes this phenomenon and puts it on steroids. People can communicate with tens of thousands -- even millions -- of people almost simultaneously. If you put something up on the Internet, countless people can access it at the same time. In an instant, information can speed across the globe.

Of course, the Web is gargantuan, and much gossip that finds its way online remains a needle in an enormous haystack of data. The "real issue," however, the network theorist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi notes in his book Linked, "isn't the overall size of the Web. It's the distance between any two documents. How many clicks does it take to get from the home page of a highschool student in Omaha to the Webpage of a Boston stockbroker?" The answer: not too many -- about nineteen clicks on average. [37]

But nineteen clicks is still a lot of clicks. Gossip might find its way onto the Internet, but it still might not spread widely. Imagine the small-time blogger, who has just a few friends reading her blog. She blogs about something really interesting. One of the friends might tip off a blogger at a popular blog -- or that blogger might just stumble upon the story. Either way, the blogger at the popular blog might decide to blog about the information and link to it. Suppose that the popular blog gets millions of readers a week. Now the information is widely disseminated-in almost an instant. To use Gladwell's term, the popular blog is a "connector." But it isn't just a normal connector -- it is a superconnector, one that can spread information much more widely and quickly than a hundred Paul Reveres.

But it doesn't end there. Many of the popular blog's readers have blogs themselves, and they blog about the story. Their readers start discussing it and blogging about it. And so on. On the Internet, gossip can more readily jump the boundaries of various social circles, because all it takes is for the gossip to come to the attention of a connector blog, where it can become contagious and spread far and wide throughout cyberspace.


Gossip is often thought of as unseemly, but it has both good and bad qualities. As the philosopher Aaron Ben Ze'ev observes, "Gossip is engaged in for pleasure, not for the purpose of hurting someone." He notes that most damage from gossip is minor. Gossip, Ben Ze'ev concludes, isn't "virtuous" but it is not "vicious" either. [38] Indeed, much gossip isn't malicious, and it is something that most of us engage in. Although people quickly denounce gossip, it remains ubiquitous. [39] According to one study, about two-thirds of all conversations involve gossip, and as one writer sums it up, "What people talk about is mostly other people." [40]

In countless societies, whether primitive or modern, gossip generally functions in similar ways. [41] Gossip is essential to establishing reputations. According to the psychologist Nicholas Emler: "Gossip does not merely disseminate reputational information but is the very process whereby reputations are decided. Reputations do not exist except in the conversations that people have about one another." [42] Gossip is a way to expose people's infringements of norms, and it is an essential tool for a community to ensure that its norms are respected.

Gossip helps shape people's reputations without confrontation. The anthropologist Karen Brison notes that because it often takes place behind a person's back, "gossip allows people to assess their neighbors and criticize digressions [from norms] without starring fights and breaching surface amity." [43] In other words, gossip can help enforce norms in a way that eases social tension and confrontation.

The legal scholar Diane Zimmerman argues that gossip teaches us a lot about society and human behavior: "By providing people with a way to learn about social groups to which they do not belong, gossip increases intimacy and a sense of community among disparate individuals and groups." For Zimmerman, "gossip is a basic form of information exchange that teaches about other lifestyles and attitudes, and through which community values are changed or reinforced." [44] We can learn a lot when we rip off the veil and peer into people's private lives.

In some instances, disclosing a person's secrets helps change certain social norms. Some norms persist even though many people violate them in the shadows. When this behavior is brought into the limelight, society will be forced to confront this norm more directly and realize just how often it is being violated. Society's hypocrisy will be revealed, and this might spark a change in the norm. [45]

Although gossip can help shape reputations, educate us about the lives of others, and stimulate the evolution of norms, it has some other qualities that are less savory. "People are careless when they gossip," Brison observes, "because they know they will not have to take responsibility for their words. This means that rumor spreads easily and the truth is distorted." [46] As the philosopher Martin Heidegger noted, gossip "spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted in this gossiping and passing the word along, a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on increases to complete groundlessness." [47] In other words, the problem with gossip is that it is based on unsubstantiated rumors, and people often don't bother to learn the full story. For Heidegger, gossip is a superficial way of learning information about others. It doesn't involve a serious attempt to understand another person but often remains shallow and careless. People rarely use gossip as a way to delve into the psychological depths of others, but rather consume it like a form of greasy fast food. Gossip is a delicious treat, often without much nutritional value. It certainly can inform us about the lives of others, but much gossip merely titillates without teaching. Gossip is rarely a dose of pure truth; it is often intermixed with fiction. The literature professor Patricia Meyer Spacks astutely notes that gossip "plays with reputation, circulating truths and half-truths and falsehoods about the activities, sometimes about the motives and feelings, of others." [48]

Although sociologists often point out that gossip is essential for social control, people often gossip in ways that don't benefit society but that instead further their own self-interest. According to Brison, "When people gossip they are less interested in preserving social order than in advancing their own political fortunes and slandering their rivals." [49] Gossip can thus function as a weapon to wound others without providing any significant contribution to the community.

With respect to norms, gossip works in two directions -- it can undermine norms, but it can also affirm them. "On the one hand," the legal scholar Robert Post observes, "gossip threatens to subvert community norms by exposing back-stage behavior and revealing the pretensions, faults, peccadillos, and scandal of community actors. On the other hand, gossip reaffirms community norms by bringing social pressure to bear on their enforcement." [50] According to the law professor Paul Schwartz, revealing people's norm violations will not always effectively change norms. [51] The number of people whose secrets are outed is often insufficient to force a change in norms. Perhaps if the veils on our lives were all removed simultaneously, society might collectively discard certain norms. However, the process of changing norms is complicated, and it is far from certain that more gossip will effectuate change in norms. Those who seek to challenge norms they dislike by gossiping about transgressors may instead increase the oppressiveness of the norms without doing much to eradicate them. Disclosing personal secrets can create an atmosphere of coercion, blackmail, and witch hunts. [52]

In the end, we're ambivalent about gossip. Sometimes gossip is quite beneficial; sometimes it is harmless; but other times, gossip is quite malignant. Regardless of gossip's vices, we would be foolish to imagine that we can ever hush its mischievous whispers. The more meaningful question is not whether we should stop gossip, but how we should control it, how we should modulate its problematic effects.


Some argue that the availability of more private information about people is a good thing. Indeed, the mantras of the Information Age are that "information wants to be free" and that "more information is always better." We need information about people to make judgments about them. The judge and legal scholar Richard Posner believes that people shouldn't be able to hide discreditable facts about themselves. According to Posner: "Prying enables one to form a more accurate picture of a friend or colleague, and the knowledge gained is useful in social or professional dealings with him." Posner argues that people often want to hide harmful facts about themselves for their own gain, a practice that is similar to a merchant concealing defects in a product. [53]

We need information about people to determine whether to trust them. We place our safety in the hands of others. We entrust others with our finances, our deepest secrets, and the care of our children. But establishing trust is hard these days because many people live in large communities with highly mobile populations. [54] Our neighbors are often strangers. Privacy inhibits the establishment of trust because privacy "makes it difficult to know others' reputations," and knowing reputations is a prerequisite to trusting strangers. [55]

Although the conventional wisdom of the Information Age is that more information is better than less, sometimes we're better off not biting into the bitter apple of others' private lives. Many believe that learning private information about other people will improve our understanding of them and enhance the accuracy of our judgments. But more information may not necessarily lead to more accurate judgments about others. In many cases, the disclosure of private information can lead to misjudgment based on only partial knowledge of someone else's situation.

Judging Out of Context

Judge Posner claims that a person concealing discreditable private information is tantamount to a merchant concealing defects in a product. However, the truth about a person is much more difficult to ascertain than the truth about a product or thing. People are far more complex than products. Knowing certain information can distort judgment of another person rather than increase its accuracy.

We are constantly judging other people, and we often must do so quickly. The law professor Jeffrey Rosen astutely points out that people have short attention spans and will probably not judge other people fairly: "When intimate personal information circulates among a small group of people who know us well, its significance can be weighed against other aspects of our personality and character. By contrast, when intimate information is removed from its original context and revealed to strangers, we are vulnerable to being misjudged on the basis of our most embarrassing, and therefore most memorable, tastes and preferences." [56]

People often condemn others on partial information. Indeed, necessity sometimes demands hasty judgment. We frequently don't have enough time to know the whole story. A short story called "The Last Judgment" by the Czech author Karel Capek best captures the issue. A deceased criminal confronts a divine tribunal to determine whether he will be sent to heaven or hell. The tribunal consists of human judges. God, instead of his usual role as judge, is the witness. God testifies about the defendant's crimes but explains the causes of the defendant's behavior and declares that, under different circumstances, the defendant would have been an upstanding citizen. Nevertheless, the judges condemn the defendant to hell. Before facing his fate, the defendant asks why God has not decided his fate: "Because I know everything. If judges knew everything, absolutely everything, they couldn't judge either: they would understand everything and their hearts would ache. How could I possibly judge you? Judges know only about your crimes but I know everything about you .... And that's why I cannot judge you." [57]

The story nicely illustrates the difference between human and divine judgment. Human judgment is imperfect; we make judgments based on fragments of information taken out of context. If we knew everything, we might find it hard to judge others at all. Because human judgment is bound to be incomplete and flawed, we should approach it with humility. Our knowledge of other people is riddled with gaps. The novelist and essayist William Gass, writing about literature, observes: "Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas. I have known many who have passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions, possessed some thoughts, a few emotions, but no psychologies, and apparently made love without the necessary organs." [58]

Similarly, our knowledge of other people is often "empty canvas." There's a lot we don't know about our coworkers, our friends, and even our family members. When we discover new information about people, we can fill in the canvas, but we still often have only partial understanding. It is easy to leap to conclusions prematurely. Although more information about a person might help enrich our understanding of that person, it might also lead us astray, since we often lack the whole story.

The Complicated Self

William James, a philosopher and pioneer in psychology, observed that people often show different sides of themselves in different contexts: "Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his 'tough' young friends." Moreover, James explained, "we do not show ourselves to our children as to our club-companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends. From this there results what practically is a division of the man into several selves." [59]

The sociologist Erving Goffman advanced a similar notion of selfhood. He remarked that we live our lives as performers; we play many different roles and wear many different masks. [60] For example, parents present themselves as role models to their children, and society deems it quite appropriate for parents to portray themselves in this idealized manner. Each role enables us to display different aspects of ourselves. People even play roles in which they seem improperly cast, hoping to grow into the part. One plays a role until it fits, becoming transformed in the process. The self is always growing and developing; it isn't fixed in one place.

Countless psychological studies indicate that we behave very differently when in public than when in private. [61] As the novelist Milan Kundera observes, "Any man who was the same in both public and intimate life would be a monster. He would be without spontaneity in his private life and without responsibility in his public life." [62] In our public roles, we often strive to meet the expectations of others. [63] We groom and clothe ourselves before emerging in public. We are often more careful in our behavior, for we are concerned about the impressions we create. In private roles, we express aspects of ourselves that are often inappropriate in public roles. [64] We're more relaxed and at ease. As Kundera notes: "In private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he'd never admit to in public, and so forth." [65]

There's a popular myth that the public self isn't as genuine as the private self. People's true colors come through in private, when they're offstage. In the words of MTVs reality television show The Real World, people "stop being polite and start being real." But the private self wasn't always thought of as more genuine. Indeed, according to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, to the ancient Greeks public life was more representative of one's authentic self than life in private. [66]

Neither the public nor private self represents the "true" self. We're too complex for that. Our public and private sides are just dimensions in a complex, multifaceted personality, one that is shaped by the roles we play. We express different aspects of our personalities in different relationships and contexts. The psychiatry professor Arnold Ludwig debunks the myth that the self displayed in private is more genuine than the self exhibited in public: "Each self is as real to the person experiencing it and as much the product of natural forces as the other. All that the distinction between a true and a false self signifies is a value judgment." [67] As a result, uncovering secrets will not necessarily reveal who people "truly" are or enable more accurate assessments of their character. Instead, these disclosures can often be jarring, for they display people out of the context in which others may know them.

Revealing private facts when first getting to know a person can be even more distorting. According to Goffman, people need time to establish relationships before revealing secrets. [68] Immediate honesty can be costly. When we first meet somebody, we have little invested in that person. We haven't built any bonds of friendship or developed any feelings for that person. So if we learn about a piece of that person's private life that seems bizarre or unpleasant, it's easy to just walk away. But we don't just walk away from people we know well. With time to gain familiarity with a person, we're better able to process information, see the whole person, and weigh secrets in context. [69]

Does the awareness that we play different roles in different contexts mean that we should actively promote this behavior through privacy protection? Who trusts people who are too chameleon-like, radically changing their personalities in every situation? Although too much dissonance may be troublesome, Arnold Ludwig argues that "when you play various roles you're not necessarily being artificial or phony. These roles let you accentuate different aspects of yourself." [70] Society has come to accept the fact that there is dissonance between public and private selves. For example, people not only accept the telling of white lies but even deem them necessary in many contexts. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel notes: "One of the remarkable effects of a smoothly fitting public surface is that it protects one from the sense of exposure without having to be in any way dishonest or deceptive, just as clothing does not conceal the fact that one is naked underneath." [71]

Nagel's observation suggests a key point -- society recognizes and accepts the fact that the public self is a partly fictional construct. The public self is constructed according to social norms about what is appropriate to expose in public. People may even feel uncomfortable when other people reveal "too much information" about themselves. In short, society expects the public self to be more buttoned-up than the private self.

The Trouble with Irrational -- and Rational -- Judgment

Besides judging based on partial information, people are also prone to making irrational judgments. Certain traits and conditions carry great stigma, which is often the result of incorrect assumptions and faulty knowledge. According to Goffman, stigma is "an attribute that is deeply discrediting." Certain stigmatic facts about a person include addiction, alcoholism, suicide attempts, mental disorders, unemployment, and illiteracy. People with stigma are often shunned or not fully accepted by society. Stigma can spread to family members, as when a child feels stigmatized by a parent's criminal past. [72]

People protect certain secrets because disclosure might lead to stereotyping and discrimination toward them and their families. For much of history, there were widespread beliefs that people who contracted particular diseases did so because of their character flaws. Even education has a difficult time cleansing stigma. People used to believe that the disease cholera was caused by sin. Later on, the cause of cholera was discovered to be poor sanitation. But even after this discovery, during the cholera epidemic of 1866, people still clung to the belief that the disease was "the scourge of the sinful." People with noninfectious illnesses, such as cancer, still find themselves shunned by friends and family. Susan Sontag contends: "Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease meaning-that meaning being invariably a moralistic one. Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance. First, the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor." [73]

Furthermore, the disclosure that people have certain diseases engenders assumptions. Discovery that a person has AIDS often results in speculation that the person has engaged in drug use, promiscuous sex, or homosexual sex. [74]

Several surveys reveal that many employers have incorrect views of cancer's effects and treatment, and cancer patients lose their jobs five times more frequently than employees without cancer. [75] Irrational judgments have existed throughout history and continue to exist. Even in the face of high costs, employers continue to engage in racial and other forms of discrimination. Market pressure cannot always rectify strongly held beliefs or subconscious prejudices. [76]

Not all judgments made based on people's personal information, however, are irrational. Suppose a person has a genetic predisposition to develop cancer. An employer might rationally decide not to hire that person, instead opting to hire another person with similar qualifications. The employer might reason that if the person at risk for developing cancer did, in fact, develop the disease, then he or she would miss many workdays. But even if it's rational for an employer to refuse to hire a worker because of a genetic condition, society should not necessarily condone that choice. And beyond genetic data, there is a lot of information -- such as an employee's off-hours activities-to which society does not believe employers should be entitled, even when relevant to job performance. [77]

Freedom from Society's Oppressive Glare

In 1996 Jennifer Ringley, a twenty-year old student, set up a Web camera in her dorm room to broadcast an ongoing video of her life over the Internet on a website called JenniCam. The camera was always on, capturing her in the nude, masturbating, and having sex. Most of the time it captured the mundane, such as her writing, reading, or doing daily chores. During the time while JenniCam was running, a scandal erupted when Jennifer had sex with her friend's fiance. Her friend found out about it from watching JenniCam. Jennifer's website became immensely popular, at one point receiving more than a million visits per day. Mainstream media began to pay attention too, and she made it onto the David Letterman show. According to Ringley: "I keep Jennicam alive not because I want or need to be watched, but because I simply don't mind being watched." [78] JenniCam moved to Jennifer's home when she left college. She kept it going for seven years, officially ending it in the beginning of the year 2004.

Most of us, I bet, would not want to live like Jennifer Ringley. Few people can live in front of the camera like Jennifer without feeling inhibited and self-conscious about everything they do. Privacy gives people space to be free from the scrutiny of society. The sociologist Alan Westin observes that privacy protects "minor non-compliance with social norms." [79] Many norms are routinely broken, and privacy permits society to ignore these small transgressions. Protecting privacy often means that we allow people to violate social norms without getting caught or punished for it, without having their peccadillos ascribed to their reputations. The sociologist Amitai Etzioni views privacy as a "realm" where people "can legitimately act without disclosure and accountability to others." [80]

Why do we want to allow people to transgress in private and get away with it? Why do we want to foster situations where people are nor accountable for their actions? Some view privacy as protecting the individual at the expense of society. According to the law professor Fred Cate, "privacy may be seen as an antisocial construct. It recognizes the right of the individual, as opposed to anyone else, to determine what he will reveal about himself." [81] However, privacy need not be understood as something that thwarts social norms. Robert Post notes that privacy protects "rules of civility" that shape life in the community. [82] We have social norms about respect for each other, and from these norms privacy emerges. [83] Thus privacy doesn't just allow people to flout norms; privacy itself is a set of norms about how intrusive we should be into each other's lives. Just as it is rude to bump into people or crowd their space, it is also rude to intrude into their private business. As the historian Peter Gay observes, granting privacy to others reflects "a capacity to respect people with ideas and ideals at odds with one's own; in short, a liberality of temper." [84] We might not like what some people may do in private, but we respect their freedom to do it so long as it remains out of the public eye. Too much judgment by others about us can lead to an oppressive amount of social control. The psychiatrist Arnold Modell notes that for many people, private space might even be central to "psychic survival." [85] Most of us desire a limited realm where we have a reprieve from the judgment of others, which otherwise might become suffocating.

Even when people are not transgressing norms or engaging in deviant behavior, they may still desire privacy. People want privacy even for their mundane daily activities. Without privacy, people might experience significant unease at everything they do, constantly wondering how others might interpret their actions. Innocent behavior might appear suspicious out of context.

The Land of Second Chances

Another reason why people ought to be able to conceal private information is to enable them to recover from past mistakes and misconduct. Most of us have disgraceful moments in our past. We have done many things we might have regretted. In childhood we may have acted with great immaturity, been cruel to others, or done things that make us ashamed. There is a value in allowing individuals the opportunity to hide these past indiscretions in their skeleton closet.

America is the "land of second chances," the saying goes. As the legal historian Lawrence Friedman puts it: "American society is and has been a society of extreme mobility, in every sense of the word: social, economic, geographical. Mobility has meant freedom; mobility has been an American value. People often moved from place to place; they shed an old life like a snake molting its skin. They took on new lives and new identities. They went from rags to riches, from log cabins to the White House. American culture and law put enormous emphasis on second chances." [86]

We grow and change throughout our lives. According to the philosopher John Dewey, the individual is not "something complete, perfect, finished, an organized whole of parts united by the impress of a comprehensive form," but is "something moving, changing, discrete, and above all initiating instead of final." [87] A person is a life process from cradle to corpse. At any given moment, we are seeing just a snapshot in time, a slice of this lifelong process. As the playwright and author Friedrich Durrenmatt eloquently wrote: "What one commonly called one's self was merely a collective term for all the selves gathered up in the past, a great heap of selves perpetually growing under the constant rain of selves drifting down through the present from the future, an accumulation of shreds of experience and memory, comparable to a mound of leaves that grows higher and higher under a steady drift of other falling leaves." [88]

Protection against disclosure permits room to change, to define oneself and one's future without becoming a "prisoner of [one's] recorded past." [89] Society has a tendency to tie people too tightly to the past and to typecast people in particular roles. The human personality is dynamic, yet accepting the complete implications of this fact can be difficult.

But in several circumstances, people find it important to know about the checkered pasts of others. For example, people may not want to risk trusting an individual with a criminal past because recidivism rates are quite high -- many ex-convicts commit crimes again. [90] Society benefits, however, when people can rehabilitate themselves and start new, more productive lives. We have a long-standing commitment to providing opportunities for rehabilitation in this country. Indeed, some of this country's colonial settlers were convicted criminals, transported here for their crimes. [91] Most states have laws that expunge juvenile criminal records when the juvenile reaches adulthood. [92] As one court observed, "an unexpunged juvenile record may create a lifelong handicap because of the stigma it carries." [93] Our criminal justice system engages in frequent and extensive efforts to rehabilitate, such as prison education programs and boot camps. We must balance the value of rehabilitation against the value of the disclosure of the information.


In the past, gossip occurred backstage; it was fleeting and localized. The anthropologist Sally Engle Merry observes: "Gossip flourishes in close-knit, highly connected social networks but atrophies in loose-knit, unconnected ones." [94] Before the rise of the blogosphere, Jessica Cutler's gossip about her sexual experiences with Robert would probably have remained within her small circle of friends. But today details about people's private lives are increasingly migrating to the Internet. Jessica's blog was read by hundreds of thousands of people -- perhaps millions. It is becoming harder and harder for people to escape their pasts. For example, in her book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum relates that she suffered intense emotional damage because of being labeled a "slut" in high school. She finally escaped in college: "I sliced off the experience from my memory when I went away to college, where no one knew." "While a girl can almost instantly acquire a 'slut' reputation as a result of one well-placed rumor," Tanenbaum observes, "it takes months, if not years, for the reputation to evaporate, if it does at all." [95] With the Internet, however, escaping a bad reputation can be impossible. Moreover, traditional gossip occurs in a context, among people who know the person being gossiped about. But the Internet strips away that context, and this can make gossip even more pernicious.

The Internet is transforming the nature and effects of gossip. It is making gossip more permanent and widespread, but less discriminating in the appropriateness of audience. Suppose, for example, John and Jane Doe are a married couple. John Doe is having an affair with another woman. If Jane Doe's brother were to tell her about the affair, many people would think that the brother acted appropriately. As the law professor Anita Allen observes, people are accountable to others even in their private lives. [96] Many of us believe that Jane should know about John's affair. But that doesn't make it acceptable for him to write about John's affair on his blog. Audience matters. The information is of concern to Jane, but not to the entire world. Another consideration is the purpose of the disclosure. Disclosures made for spite, or to shame others, or simply to entertain, should not be treated the same as disclosures made to educate or inform. When we determine whether gossip is good or not, we must look at the who, what, and why of it. We should ask: Who is making the disclosure? Is the disclosure made to the appropriate audience? Is the purpose behind the disclosure one we should encourage or discourage? The problem with Internet gossip is that it can so readily be untethered from its context.

I believe that it is imperative that we do something to address the developments inherent in the marriage of traditional gossip to the technology of the Internet. But what? How do we protect privacy in a world where information is flowing ever more freely, where anybody can publish information to a worldwide audience? I will explore this issue later. First, though, let us turn to the practice of shaming -- which, like gossip, has taken on new and troubling dimensions in the digital age.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Wed Oct 09, 2013 1:10 am


Chapter 4: Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter

Laura had to write a five-page college paper on Hinduism in a hurry. She had little to work with and knew nothing about the topic. So she decided to cheat. She sent an instant message to Nate Kushner, who listed Hinduism in his online profile with AOL. She offered him money if he would write her paper for her on short notice. Nate was appalled by what Laura was trying to do, so he hatched a plan. He would agree to write her paper but would fill it with silly errors and copied passages that could readily be found by searching on the Internet. Kushner also had a blog, and he dashed off a post about his plan with the title: "Laura [lastname] is a Plagiarist." [1] Kushner referred to the student by her real name, and he also mentioned the college she attended. According to his plan, once she turned the paper in, he would email her as well as her college dean with a link to his blog post.

What he didn't expect was that his blog post began to attract significant attention. Other bloggers began linking to Kushner's blog post. Hundreds of people wrote comments to it. Some criticized Kushner as being too harsh on Laura. Others approved of Kushner's plan. "I can't wait to see this chick get her comeuppance," one commentator gleefully declared. "You do the crime, you do the time," another wrote, "She is absolutely getting everything she deserves."

The biology professor PZ Myers of the blog Pharyngula observed: "Here's a fine object lesson: a student solicited a term paper via instant messenger, and got more than she expected. Like her name up in lights on a web page and the information forwarded to the president of her university. I like it. It's a great little poison pill to make students more reluctant to attempt this sort of thing." [2]

In a follow-up post, Kushner wrote:

God, I honestly had no idea this would become an internet-wide thing. My imagination had told me that this could be a funny story kept between me, her school, and a couple dozen friends of mine who visit this site.

People began calling Laura's school and her home. In a subsequent post, titled "The Saga Is Over," Kushner wrote:

First of all, everybody, this is a cease and desist order to stop calling Laura and stop calling her university. Everybody knows now.

In a post the following day, Kushner wrote:

Alright, here's how it ends, people. Brace yourselves for disappointment, because you're going to find our where I failed to show you blood when you wanted it.

Also, let's reiterate. Nobody call Laura or her school anymore. Everybody knows now....

I do want this to be over. ...

I had thought I could make her sweat (as had been my plan practically since the paper solicitation fell into my lap) by sending her the link to the original story sometime on Wednesday, after she'd handed the paper in ....

So it became Monday, and instead of finishing off my nice prank I was going to share with two or three dozen real-life friends, I was faced with all of you people looking for blood. I didn't want blood. What I wanted was irony.

Laura called Kushner and begged him to take down the post. Laura's mother got involved, pleading with him to take Laura's name off the Internet. Kushner wrote about the conversation in his post: "I explained another three times that I couldn't erase her from the whole internet, and that everybody knows." Kushner agreed, however, to edit his posts to substitute a fictitious last name for Laura.

Is the story true or just a hoax? One difficulty with the information on the Internet is that it is hard to know how true it really is. If CNN ran the story, we'd trust that the facts were checked and verified; we'd believe that CNN would not deliberately fabricate the story. We'd be assured that if CNN's story were wrong in any way, CNN would suffer reputational harm. Reporters might get fired. Retractions and corrections would be made. But Kushner is an amateur. He's not a professional journalist. He doesn't have fact checkers. He doesn't have much of a journalistic reputation at stake. He might be concocting this entire scenario for amusement. Or he might be telling the truth. We just don't know for sure.

Whether true or false, this incident demonstrates how fast information can speed across the Internet. Kushner's blog posts attracted a large audience within a matter of hours. Numerous bloggers linked to it, and the Internet's bright spotlight moved over to Kushner's blog for a short while. Kushner appeared to be quite surprised by the sudden interest. He thought he was writing for the amusement of a few of his friends. And once the story broke out around the Internet, Kushner was unable to stuff it back into the bottle. His posts indicate how quickly it spiraled out of his control. When one puts information on the Internet, it can easily become like Frankenstein's monster, escaping the dominion of its master.

This incident also demonstrates the growing phenomenon of shaming people via the Internet. Shaming is nothing new -- we've been doing it for centuries. But Internet shaming creates a permanent record of a person's transgressions. And it is done by amateur self-appointed investigative reporters, often without affording the target a chance at self-defense. Numerous others then join in to help shame the victim, creating the cyberspace equivalent to mob justice. Recall the dog poop girl incident, a classic example of the Internet's profound power to shame an individual. What are the virtues and vices of using the Internet to shame others? What, if anything, should be done about Internet shaming?


Peoria is a city of slightly more than one hundred thousand people in Illinois. It is frequently used as a symbol of mainstream America. The question "How will it play in Peoria?" has become a formula for assessing the reaction of the average American citizen. So perhaps Peoria's entrance into the shame game is especially significant. The local government began shaming campaigns for property owners who owned blighted properties. Soon residents got into the shaming business. The anonymous creators of one new website, Peoria Crack House, attempt to publicly shame people suspected of owning drug dens. [3] A sample post contains the address of the property, the name of its owner, and a picture of the owner's relative who was an ex-convict. The post is written in the form of a letter to the owner:

Dear Angela [last name]:

I'm not bothering to introduce myself, bur that is only fair, considering you did nor bother with introductions when you moved into the neighborhood and began to re-introduce it to young thugs dressed in getto [sic] attire, conducting their drug activity....

It's ironic that someone who was smart enough to qualify for a $61,000.00 loan from GSF Mortgage Corp ... is too stupid to realize that in a neighborhood where most homes are at least twice the value of yours your neighbors are not going to put up with the sort of illegal, property devaluing crap with which the inhabitants of your property think they can engage.

And here is what we already know about you, Angela [last name]:

1. You used to live on the East Bluff, in a house subsidized by a PHA affiliated Nor for Profit Corporation ... where you apparently liked to threaten and intimidate your neighbors by letting your Rottweiler run loose;

2. You also had a child at that address, Jamar [last name], that like [sic] to run around loose at night after curfew.

3. Last year you moved into [address], and then you got married to a Christopher [last name] when he was paroled from the Illinois Department of Corrections in January of 2005.

The post continues with more personal details about Angela. [4] In a follow-up post later that day, the blogger wrote:

Parole was contacted and advised of the information on this blog. Promptly, Parole agents swarmed the house, arrested and tested Mr. [last name], who was found to be positive for illegal drugs. Upon questioning, Mr. [last name] admitted that he had been smoking crack in the shed behind the house. He claimed he had nor smoked it in the house, because he did nor want to dis his woman.

But now there are three young thugs ... that are hanging off of the porch.

Wanna bet that Angela is going to lose her house before the year is out!

Peoria Crack House fashions itself as a citizen's way to eliminate neighborhood crime and blight. At least from the blog's description of the events, it played a role in bringing the information to the attention of the authorities. But how did the blogger obtain all the information? What if it weren't correct? And what if it led to others in the neighborhood trying to take the law into their own hands?

The New York City Subway Flasher

On a hot day in August 2005, a twenty-two-year-old woman was riding on a New York City subway train. A man seated nearby on the train unzipped his pants, exposed himself, and began to masturbate. But the young woman was ready to fight back. She snapped his photo with her cell phone camera and posted it on the Internet. More than forty-five thousand people viewed the photo. "He made me feel creepy," the woman said. "I want to embarrass him." [5]

The New York Daily News reprinted the photograph on its front page and later published an editorial which stated: "The perv in her picture looks much more like a regular citizen than the Basher of myth. The difference is that nothing of the pre-cyber age could generate disgrace such as [the woman] so justly imposed when she posted the photo on the Internet." [6] Shortly afterward, the man was arrested. He was a forty-three-year old man who owned a restaurant in New York City. [7]

The Cell Phone Thief

In August 2005 John's expensive Sprint cell phone was stolen from his car. Sprint provides a website where people can upload the photos they take with their cell phone cameras, so John went to the site and saw that somebody had taken nearly forty photos and made some videos. They were mostly of a young man who appeared either alone or with his girlfriend and family members. [8]

John was angry. He sent a message to the man who apparently took his phone: "Like to steal cell phones and use them to take pics of your self and make videos .... HA! guess what pal ... i have every pic you took and the videos. I will be plastering the town with pics of your face." The young man, named Danny, texted an indignant reply, but he carelessly exposed his full name in the process. John posted the information and photos on an electronic bulletin board-a website where users can have online discussions. He also took the information to the police. [9]

Comments erupted on the website. One person proclaimed: "Hope that the fool that took the camera gets what is coming to him." Another cackled: "I absolutely love this! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !" Yet another snorted: "HAHAH! This is spreading on the internet like wild fire!" One commentator did a search under Danny's name and listed the results, which included the addresses for six people with Danny's full name. Comments poured in from around the world. "He's now famous in Germany too," one person wrote, "cause a well known German board posted the link and the stor[y]." [10]

Kevin Poulsen, a reporter for the magazine Wired, wrote a story about the incident. He contacted Danny and learned that he was a sixteen-year-old. Because of Danny's young age, Poulsen "elected not to report his name." [11]

When John found out that Danny was a minor, he regretted posting the pictures and his name on the Internet. Now, commentators were reposting Danny's name and photo across the Internet. John removed what he had posted and wrote:


Others, however, didn't remove the photos. In fact, many plastered the photos in the comments to John's post. Some morphed the picture into a wanted poster with Danny's name.

Responses grew much nastier. Others posted pictures of Danny's face superimposed on various images, including pornographic photos. Comments on various electronic bulletin boards devolved into bigoted slurs and insults lodged against Danny. [13]

Back at the electronic bulletin board where John originally wrote about Danny, comments continued to pour in. One commentator said:

And I encourage everybody that has the pictures to keep on spreading them so this little thieving idiot will be infamous, and if you live in his neighborhood to make a poster and warn EVERYBODY of this little rotten bastard. I hope he rots in prison, but most probably he will get a slap on the wrist, the spoiled brat. [14]

Another asked: "WHO THE HELL CARES IF THEY ARE MINORS OR NOT????"John wrote in reply:

Because minors do really stupid things without even thinking of the consequences and how other people will be affected.

When I was kid I did absurdly stupid things .... Now by no means is that statement I just typed meant to be a pardon to Danny. This has been reported to the police and I WILL be following through to make sure this punk learns that there are consequences for stealing another person's property.

Photo of the cell phone culprit morphed into a wanted poster (last name and face obscured)

What has gone on here is just as wrong. In another time this would be described as a lynching and you people would be called a lynch mob. Yes, I know I'm the one who started this, it was bad judgment on my part. People who ... had nothing to do with this have been dragged in just due to the fact that they keep extremely bad company. Does anyone realize that they could be creating another victim of this crime? [15]

Incensed by John's change of heart, commentators began posting John's personal information on the comment board. One commentator wrote:

Now you've had some moral dilemma and want to recant, well I have some bad news for you. You may not find Danny's persecution funny, but we sure do .... [We] have no pity on thieving punks like Danny and I bet he's learned quite a lesson.

Consider our work a community service. Danny could have gone from boosting phones to jacking cars, thug life and all. I would venture to guess that he'll keep his hands to himself ....

Behold the power of the internets! ! ! ! ! ! ! [16]

This incident raises several difficult questions. A stolen cell phone is probably not high on the priority list of the NYPD. Perhaps the Internet is a great new tool to aid in law enforcement. It can enable people to help enforce laws that police aren't sufficiently enforcing.

On the other hand, in Danny's case, the photos posted included not only himself but his teenage girlfriend and family. These other people were not engaged in any crime, but their pictures were plastered across the Internet. Danny was just a juvenile, too. John regretted his decision to post Danny's pictures and information on the Web, but the situation spiraled out of John's control. Although the illegal conduct of the subway flasher is scarcely open to question, perhaps Danny wasn't the thief. Perhaps he just found the phone or perhaps somebody gave it to him. What happens when people think that they have found the culprit but are mistaken?

Self-Deputized Police on the Internet

The Peoria Crack House website and the pillorying of the subway flasher and the cell phone thief are just a few examples of how the Internet is being used by people to shame others. In these cases, people frustrated that others were getting away with crime attempted to take the law into their own hands and expose the wrongful conduct. In some instances, they got salutary results -- the wrongdoers were caught and punished. Can the Internet serve to enhance people's ability to help the cops catch criminals? Is this a good thing?


In a San Francisco Apple computer retail store, customers noticed a vaguely androgynous person spending a lot of time there with a computer. The Apple store had free wireless Internet service, and the person apparently was taking advantage of it by frequently hanging out at the store. Some people became annoyed at the person, and they blogged and posted pictures online. One blogger noted:

The photo, taken on July 7, appears to show the same person: same hair, same earbuds. And it appears that he is a she.

Her tenure at the store is now approaching at least one month. Given that the average monthly rent for an apartment in San Francisco is currently about $1700 (not including wireless Internet access), I'd say she's getting a pretty good deal. [17]

Another blogger wrote:

[Other bloggers] have been razzing the so-called Apple Store Squatter -- a PC-toting woman who allegedly spends hours, if nor days away at the San Francisco Apple Store slurping up the free will. Just a reminder to y'all that no one's privacy is safe from the blogosphere -- especially if you spend any time in public! [18]

Was the Apple Store Lady breaking the law? Perhaps she was loitering, but the store employees apparently didn't seem to care. Why were others so concerned about such a trivial thing as one woman who overused free wifi in a store?


Although not breaking the law, the Apple Store Lady was violating a norm. She was using a free service "too much," which is to say beyond the amount of time that some people thought reasonable. To understand shaming, it is essential to understand norms. Every society has an elaborate lattice of norms. A norm is a rule of conduct, one less official than a law, but sometimes as improper to transgress. If you break a law, you can be punished by the government or be sued by another person. Norms generally are not enforced in this manner. Nor are they written down in a book of legal code. Nonetheless, norms are widely known and widely observed rules of social conduct. [19]

Norms and law overlap to some extent; many crimes are violations of social norms that we have agreed through legislation and adjudication to enforce through formal punishments. But norms cover a wider range of conduct. For example, there is no law against picking one's nose in public or against being rude, but both are norm violations. Norms encompass a litany of rules involving manners and etiquette that law doesn't cover. A poem from the seventeenth century humorously illustrates the rules of etiquette:

Let not thy privy members be
layd upon to be view'd
it is most shameful and abhord,
detestable and rude.

Retaine not urine nor the winde
which doth thy body vex
so it be done with secresie
let that not thee perplex. [20]

Norms develop and change over time. Consider, for example, the norms of cell phone use. In the United States, the number of people using cell phones grew by more than 350 percent from 1993 to 2003, from 34 million users to 159 million. [21] Worldwide, there are more than a billion cell phone users. [22]

Bystanders are especially irked by the disruptiveness of cell phones. According to one poll, 59 percent said that they would rather go to the dentist than sit beside a cell phone user. [23] In a popular commercial shown in movie theaters, an obnoxious man uses his cell phone in a myriad of outrageous ways. A jingle plays in the background with lyrics that begin: "It's inconsiderate cell phone man." At the end of the ad, he boasts to another person over the phone: "I've got a million minutes." [24]

Generally accepted rules of etiquette for cell phones have quickly developed. Turn them off at the theater. Don't speak in a loud voice on the phone when in public. If you get a call during dinner at a restaurant, excuse yourself from the table if you need to take it. Few people would argue with these norms. Within a relatively short time following the wide acceptance of this new technology, there appears to be considerable consensus about cell phone norms. The extent of compliance with these norms, however, still lags.

Norms are often good things. As Henry David Thoreau observed, "We live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another." Thus we "have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war." [25] Norms enable us to get along smoothly and to resolve many situations that could lead to disputes.

But norms can be bad things, too. For instance, they can be riddled with double standards. Throughout much of Western history, for example, adultery by women was viewed as vastly more culpable than that by men. [26] Additionally, some activities are common but hidden, such as certain sexual practices. As Anita Allen notes, society can be quite hypocritical about sex. Society's attitudes toward sex are a complex stew of "conflicting physical, emotional, and social imperatives." [27] There are also many norms we now recognize as unjust.

Norm Enforcement

When somebody violates a norm, a few others might try to confront that norm violator. I call these people the "norm police." Just as we need police to enforce the law, we need norm police to enforce norms. If a norm never gets enforced, then it will gradually cease to be a norm.

Sample SHHH card. Designed by Aaron James Draplin, based on an idea by Jim Coudal's wife, Heidi,

Regarding cell phones, the designers Jim Coudal and Aaron Draplin, inspired by an idea from Jim's wife, Heidi, created free cards that people could download from the Internet and hand our to obnoxious cell phone users. [28]

According to the website,

After reading a story in the NYT, Jim's wife Heidi came up with a method to fight back against the obnoxious cell phone users that we all have to deal with in stores, restaurants, trains and pretty much everywhere else. Can design ride to the rescue? Jim and the incomparable Aaron Draplin think it can. So, as a public service, we introduce the reasonably polite SHHH, the Society for HandHeld Hushing.

In many cases, norm police help us maintain an orderly society. We want to keep cell phone users from becoming too obnoxious. We want norms to develop and for them to be enforced. Shame makes us self-aware in an often painful and uneasy way. [29] It can serve as both an external and an internal check on behavior. The tough issue, however, is just how much norm enforcement we want.

The Internet is quickly becoming a powerful norm-enforcement tool. A plethora of websites now serve as forums for people to shame others. For example, a website called Rude People allows users to post reports of their encounters with impolite individuals. [30] On the website PlateWire, people post information about bad drivers, identified by their license plate numbers. The site declares: "Report and flag bad drivers, award good drivers, and even flirt with cute drivers. PlateWire was born our of frustration from years of driving alongside drivers who seem to have no concern with anyone's safety, including their own." [31] And on the website Flickr, where people post photos, there are countless snapshots of individuals accused of talking too loudly on their cell phones. [32] Some post pictures of "the annoying guy behind us," the "rude man," "obnoxious people," or anybody else who acts in an uncivil manner. [33]

This new norm policing technology raises all sons of difficult questions. To explore these questions, let's look at an example of how the Internet can be used to enforce norms of tipping.

Bitter Waitress

For quite a long time, sociologists, psychologists, and economists have been fascinated by tipping. Scores of scholarly papers have examined the practice. [34] The practice is less common in Europe and in many other countries than in the United States, where people tip for a variety of services. We tip servers in restaurants, doorpeople at hotels, concierges, cab drivers, and more. The general rule of thumb is that one tips between 15 and 20 percent. Tipping in the United States generates $27 billion per year in income. [35]

One reason why scholars find tipping so fascinating is that people often tip servers whom they will never encounter again. Of course, if we will see a server again, it makes good sense to tip that person well. After all, if we tip poorly, the server might treat us badly next time. But in many cases, we'll never see a particular waiter or waitress again. Why bother tipping? Why not just keep the cash? We could save a lot of money this way, and there would be few consequences to us. After all, who would find out?

Certain traditional economic theories of human behavior have a difficult time explaining tipping. If there's no external sanction for not tipping well, and there's no continuing relationship between the tipper and server, then the rational self-interested person shouldn't bother tipping. Yet the majority of us tip anyway.

For those who don't, there's little that can be done to punish them for it. By the time the server finds out about the measly (or nonexistent) tip, the diner has left the restaurant. Nobody else might find out either -- it's something known by the server and the tipper and anyone the server happens to complain to.

But now something can be done about lousy tippers. A website called BitterWaitress allows servers to enter information to a "Shitty Tipper Database." [36] It contains the names and locations of bad tippers, the tip, the percentage, as well as a description of the tipper. The website declares:

Welcome to the Shiny Tipper Database (beta). OK, so here's how the fun works. Very simply, you click submit to the STD and enter the name, total check, and tip of somebody who left you a shitty tip.

The database looks like this:


The database goes on and on. People can search the database for specific names. According to the website's author, "A shitty tip is, by my definition, any gratuity under 17% for service which one's peers would judge as adequate or better (e.g. Orders are correct, on time, special requests are honored, etc.)." Offenders are also offered a rare online opportunity: "If you see your name here and would like to apologize, click submit an apology."

When you click "read details" in the database, you get a short narrative about each bad tipper. Here's an example:

Tipper's Name: [full name]

Where it happened: Virginia

Total bill / Tip amount / Percentage: $40.93/ $0.00/ 0%

What happened: If you get this girl, watch out! She is the type to use the excuse that you are rude to not leave a tip. I was working cocktail (by myself) the night she came in, and had just got sat with a party of 10 that wanted 10 separate checks. I brought their food out, and was particularly nice to them, and thanked them for coming in etc. In the tip space of the credit card slip, she wrote "Don't be rude." ... Is this your pathetic excuse not to tip me because you are a ghetto piece of shit?? Fuck you then ... be careful next time that there is not a big pile of spit in your stupid well done steak. [37]

The author of a comment about another patron gripes: "Cheap dirt buckets! Maybe they should spend a little less money on their grody tattoos and a little more money tipping for exceptional service. Cheap, unattractive, ignorant jerks." [38]

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-sellers The Tipping Point and Blink, found himself in the website's database for leaving only a 10 percent tip. Gladwell denied that he is a bad tipper: "I could have sworn I was reliably in the 15-to-20 percent range." [39] There is no attempt to verify the information on the website, and any server can submit a name and an entry. The website has a disclaimer that states: "Please note that all submissions are printed with minimal or no editing. We are not responsible for submissions to the [database]. Uh-uh, no way, not in the least."
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am

Re: The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on

Postby admin » Wed Oct 09, 2013 1:15 am


Bad Boys Getting Their Due

Some of the new shaming websites allow women to publicly shame men who engage in bad behavior. One of these sites is a blog called Holla Back NYC, to which people submit cell phone pictures of men who make crude remarks to them. [40] At the top of the website are pictures of women confidently holding cell phone cameras like loaded pistols pointed at the viewer. The site declares:


Incidents described range from coarse pickup lines to gawking to flashing to reading porn in public.

Another website, Don't Date Him Girl, provides a forum for women to denounce men who cheat on them. The website's motto is "investigate before you date." [41] Don't Date Him Girl describes itself as "an online community of powerful women from around the world who choose to exercise their rights to free speech on the Internet by boldly sharing their bad dating experiences with other women." [42]

The website's mission statement offers a utopian vision:

Wouldn't it be great if your next paramour came with a list -- Secrets I'm Keeping From You? Or, how fabulous would it be if you could get all your new boyfriend's exes in a room and cross-examine them, Gloria Allred-style? You could really learn how your new man operates. You'd have information you could use to discern whether you're making the right choice in love. Of course, you can do a criminal background check, but no one's invented a way to do a personality check. Is he or she attentive, caring and ambitious? Or does he cheat and lie? Is he controlling or is he a mama's boy? A criminal background check cannot answer these questions. [43]

The website has a database with profiles under the name of each errant man. The profiles describe the man's detestable behavior, often in great detail. Several of the profiles include pictures. The misbehavior chronicled at Don't Date Him Girl ranges from the mild to severe. For example, one entry reads:

His name is Cliff. He's a charmer. A doctor, musician, athlete, good looking guy! He is on (or has been on), Yahoo!, AmericanSingles, JDate, eHarmony....

Basically, he cannot remain loyal to one woman. During our brief dating time he gave me the impression we were exclusive. A friend of mine spotted him online and after some browsing I found him on several sites. When I confronted him he lied. He's not a bad guy but just cannot respect women....

I just want to warn others not to be taken in by his initial charm as I was. Just ask him about his background with woman and about his relationship with his mother and you'll have the full picture. And lastly, he seems to be growing! Last year he was 5'11" in his profile.... this year he's 6'0"!

Another profile asserts:

This man should be avoided AT ALL COSTS! He lures women into his web of deceit and lies through Cupid dot com, and other online dating sites. He has a violent criminal past which includes beating up his ex wife and sending her to the hospital!

Is There a Problem?

Should we see websites like BitterWaitress and Don't Date Him Girl as a positive revolution in norm enforcement? Perhaps the Internet enables more effective norm enforcement than people can achieve in realspace. The Internet can enable norm violators to be shamed in many instances where it would be difficult or impossible to do otherwise. Without BitterWaitress, bad tippers could continue with impunity, undetected and unpunished. Now, on the Internet, their stingy souls can be bared for everyone to see. Is this a good thing?


From Salem, Massachusetts, in the year 1674, comes this account of how one transgressor was punished:

Hannah Gray, according to one of her neighbors, was a "lying little devil." Another neighbor said she had seen Hannah in the company of Andrew Davis, acting in a lascivious manner. A seventeen-year-old girl testified that her brother had told her how Hannah used to entice "the scoller boys" (from Harvard, presumably) and use "baudly language." The court ordered her to stand at the meetinghouse at Salem and later at Beverly with a paper on her head on which was written in capital letters; "I STAND HEERE FOR MY LACIVIOUS & WANTON CARIAGES, [44]

In the past, shaming punishments were common. The ancient Romans would brand a letter signifying the crime onto the wrongdoer's forehead-the Latin equivalent of M for murder, V for vagrancy, and F for fighting. [45] Branding was also performed in colonial America. Burglars were branded on the face with the letter B, and someone who stole another's hog was branded with an H. [46] Bodily mutilation was also common. As the legal historian Lawrence Friedman observes about the American colonies, "Dozens of detached ears ... litter the record books." [47]

Another popular punishment was the pillory. A transgressor was forced to stand in public with head and hands locked between two wooden boards. The device was used for dishonest merchants, libelers, adulterers, drunkards, thieves, and many others. [48] Women were subjected to the" ducking chair" for "scolding": tied to a chair, the woman was dunked into a river. [49] Other punishments included being whipped in public, being paraded around with a sign proclaiming one's offenses, or being forced to do humiliating labor. [50]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter provides a powerful illustration of a colonial shaming punishment. During the seventeenth century, in a small Puritan community, Hester Prynne is forced to wear the letter A stitched to her clothing as a punishment for her adulterous affair. This symbol serves as a form of public identification, "fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom," that links her to her breach of community norms. It serves as an inescapable reminder of her past misdeeds: "It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself." [51]

Over time, these colorful punishments disappeared. Why? One reason is that shame lost some of its power as the population expanded, as towns turned into cities, and as people more frequently moved from one place to another. In colonial times, shaming was a severe punishment. People were not very mobile in seventeenth-century America. Communities were close-knit; most people in town knew one another. [52] Public humiliation could be devastating in such tight communities: "Colonists both dreaded this humiliating exposure and were repelled by the threat of enduring the judgmental, jeering eyes of community peers." [53]

Urbanization and mobility changed the nature of communities. Today, in large urban areas, people are surrounded by strangers; they go about their days in relative anonymity. They can readily move to different cities and become part of new communities. These facets of modern life make it easier to escape the sting of shame.

Another reason that shaming subsided was the rise of prisons. Since there were few prisons during colonial times, other forms of punishment had to be used. The more serious crimes were punishable by execution, but for the less serious ones, shame was enough of a sanction. Incarceration provided an alternative means for punishing people. [54] No longer exposed to public scorn, criminals were locked away in institutions that the public rarely saw. Punishment used to be a public spectacle; now it is hidden from public view. [55]

Today, however, shaming punishments have returned -- with a vengeance. Localities are publicizing photographs of men who solicit prostitutes. In 1997 Kansas City began broadcasting on television the names, photos, and addresses of people arrested for soliciting prostitutes. It was called John TV: Oakland is placing images on large billboards of people caught soliciting prostitutes. [56] Judges are requiring thieves to wear T-shirts referring to their crimes. Other judges have forced people to wear "brightly colored bracelets that read 'DUI Convict,' 'I Write Bad Checks,' and the like." [57] In 2004 two states -- Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- began posting the names of delinquent taxpayers on a website. [58]


The shaming sanctions I have described are being undertaken by the government to enforce the law. Internet shaming, in contrast, is often done to punish not just violations of law but also transgressions of norms. Moreover, the Internet allows shaming not only by the government but also by everyday citizens.

Internet shaming has many benefits. Without shaming, people like the dog poop girl, the subway flasher, and the creep who harasses women in the street would often go unpunished. In a world of increasingly rude and uncivil behavior, shaming helps society maintain its norms of civility and etiquette.

Online shaming also gives people a chance to fight back, to voice their disapproval of inappropriate behavior and even of poor customer service. A growing segment of online shaming is devoted to corporations that mistreat their customers. For example, the law professor Eugene Volokh of the popular blog The Volokh Conspiracy complained about the customer service he received from Dell for his laptop computer:

Dell gets the dubious honor of having given me what's likely the most ridiculously bad customer service experience I've had in years. I have a simple problem: The hard drive for my Dell notebook crashed after my computer was out of warranty. I bought a new hard drive, but now I need a boot disk for the Microsoft XP Professional operating system that I originally bought loaded onto my computer. I suspect this happens very often; there ought to be a standard procedure for it.

I've now spent over an hour trying to get this straightened out-almost all of it navigating through the voice-mail menus, waiting on hold, or being transferred to some other department. I got cut off during the transfer process twice. I've probably talked to eight different people. I was transferred to spare pans, who told me I had to talk to customer support, who then tried to transfer me back to spare parts, except at that point the call was cut off. [59]

The Volokh Conspiracy receives thirty thousand or more visits each day, so it would be wise for Dell to take notice. Ordinarily, if a company treats a customer badly, it takes a while for word to work its way around. But the blogosphere makes it much easier to give customer complaints some sting.

In another incident, a blogger sparked a public relations nightmare for Sony BMG after the company put hidden antipiracy software on Sony CDs that would be installed on the hard drives of users who played the disks in their computers. [60] Sony had been using the software for about eight months until Mark Russinovich, a computer expert and blogger, discovered it and blogged about it in October 2005. [61] Mark explained that the software made affected computers less secure, and his post ignited an uproar across the blogosphere. The mainstream media soon picked up the story, and Sony quickly responded by releasing a patch to remove the software.

Across the Internet, people are shaming companies into providing them better service, into fulfilling the promises of their glitzy ads that tout prompt and reliable assistance for their products. This kind of shaming allows the little guy to fight back against the big corporation rather than go through the typical channels of writing a complaint letter and getting a formulaic "we appreciate your concerns and we'll do better next time" reply. As a spokesperson for Consumer Action declared: "To get back at people who are out to steal or swindle, shaming may be a reasonable response .... Anything that produces more information, anything that penetrates this slickly manicured image, is useful information." [62]

Like companies, individuals can have "slickly manicured" reputations, and shaming might expose these reputations as a facade. People might find it useful to know about the dog poop girl, for they might not want to associate with her. Shaming can thus provide valuable information to help us assess each other's reputations.

Moreover, without the Internet shaming, people would easily be able to get away with rude and wrongful behavior. Internet shaming makes it harder for people to escape their transgressions. And people like the dog poop girl, the cell phone thief, and the subway flasher deserve to be punished. The law professor Lior Strahilevitz points out the virtues of marshaling the public to report on the infractions of others. Programs such as "How's My Driving?" which encourage people to call a toll free number to register complaints about bad driving by truck drivers, have reduced driving accidents significantly. [63] Strahilevitz recommends expanding such programs to all drivers and even to other contexts. [64] If "How's My Driving?" programs work well in the offline world, perhaps we should celebrate the development of similar programs online. Shaming can empower people to enforce laws and social norms that increasingly go unenforced because our vast and impersonal society allows transgressors to remain obscure and anonymous, unaccountable for their vile conduct.


Although Internet shaming can have many benefits, it unfortunately also can raise some very severe problems. The primary trouble is that Internet shaming is hard to keep under control, and this fault can be particularly pernicious.

Permanent Alienation

One of the chief drawbacks of Internet shaming is the permanence of its effects. Internet shaming creates an indelible blemish on a person's identity. Being shamed in cyberspace is akin to being marked for life. It's similar to being forced to wear a digital scarlet letter or being branded or tattooed. People acquire permanent digital baggage. They are unable to escape their past, which is forever etched into Google's memory. For the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, shame is more than simply an expression of displeasure at particular acts; rather, it is an enduring reduction in social status to a lesser kind of person:

"Shame punishments, historically, are ways of marking a person, often for life, with a degraded identity .... Guilt punishments make the statement, 'You committed a bad act.' Shame punishments make the statement, 'You are a defective type of person.''' Nussbaum contends: "Tattoos, brands, signs-these mark a person as having a deviant identity, and their role historically has been to announce that spoiled identity to the world." For Nussbaum, shaming is too degrading to a person's dignity for a respectable society to encourage it. [65]

Certain forms of temporary shaming, in which a person is humiliated for a short period of time and then reintegrated into the community, are much less problematic than everlasting shaming. Shame has a way of alienating people, inhibiting their ability to rehabilitate and reintegrate themselves into the community. [66] Shame creates an impulse to cover up and hide. [67] Perhaps the best-known image of shame is that of Adam and Eve covering themselves as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Shame is about hiding; it is about exile; it is about withdrawal. Shame's tendency to lead to withdrawal and alienation makes it troubling. Without allowing a wrongdoer to reenter community life, shame becomes quite destructive. Wrongdoers are nor educated or simply taught a lesson. Their reputation is wounded, and they are left without a chance to become part of the community again. People alienated from society often have little to lose and a lot of bitterness -- a recipe for their continuing to engage in wrongdoing.

Lack of Proportionality in Punishment

Generally, we believe that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. The problem with Internet norm enforcement is that it often spirals out of control. Offenses that deserve a mild scolding are punished with digital equivalent to branding. When someone makes a grievous mistake, he or she ought to be punished. But disproportionate punishment risks creation of an oppressive society. Even desirable norms can be enforced to an excessive degree. [68] Internet shaming has a tendency to become overzealous. Often the punishments don't fit the crime, and people's lives can be ruined for relatively minor transgressions.

Unlike the shaming of businesses, the shaming of individuals is often more difficult to ameliorate. Companies can readily reinvent themselves, and they routinely do so after their reputation suffers damage. Institutions can change their management, their personnel, and their business philosophy. We often more readily accept change in institutions than in individuals. Before online shaming, individuals could also reinvent themselves, but a tarnished reputation on the Internet is hard to escape from. Often, the information fragments about a person that appear in a search will not include the person's redemption. When shaming occurs online, it ceases to be a temporary mark of disgrace and becomes a lasting inscription of stigma. Permanent shame can be unproductive. It punishes people for longer than necessary and it prevents them from building new lives.

Lack of Due Process

In medieval towns and villages, long before the dawn of police, justice would be carried out by posses. Victims would raise the hue and cry, and posses would hunt down the suspected offender and carry out punishment on the spot (typically execution). We've come a long way from those days. But Internet shaming resurrects dimensions of the posse.

Internet shaming falls outside the control of the legal system. Indeed, as Nussbaum argues, shaming involves a sanction that the state cannot entirely control:

In shaming, the state does not simply mete out punishment through its own established institutions. It invites the public to punish the offender. This is not only an unreliable way to punish, but one that is intrinsically problematic, for it invites the "mob" to tyrannize over whoever they happen not to like. Justice by the mob is not the impartial, deliberative, neutral justice that a liberal-democratic society typically prizes. [69]

Internet shaming is farther removed from the state's control than government-sponsored shaming punishments. In the ordinary criminal justice process, a person is innocent until proven guilty. The world of shaming works differently, as people are punished without a hearing. In one incident, the University of Colorado used a website to post surveillance photos of students and other individuals it wanted to identify for smoking marijuana on Farrand Field. It was long a tradition at the university for students to smoke pot on Farrand Field each year on April 20 -- a party called "420 Day." The university wanted to stamp out this tradition, so it created a website on which it posted pictures of 150 students captured in the act of smoking pot. [70] According to the website:

The University is offering a reward for the identification of any of the individuals pictured below. After reviewing the photos (click on a photo for a larger image), you may claim the reward by following the directions below:

1. Contact the UCPD Operations section at (303) 492-8168

2. Provide the photo number and as much information as you have about the individual.

3. Provide your name and contact information.

4. If the identity is verified to be correct, you will be paid a $50 reward for every person identified.

5. The reward will be paid to the first caller who identifies a person below, multiple rewards will nor be paid for individuals listed below. [71]

The website consisted of a grid of thumbnail photos that people could click on to get larger, high-resolution images. Pictures of students who were identified were stamped with the word IDENTIFIED in large capital letters.

The Farrand Field website purported to investigate "trespassers" on the field. But it really appeared to be an attempt to use shaming to try to snuff out the embers of 420 Day. Soon after the website was created, it was taken down. The reason why is unknown.

The Farrand Field website exposed students engaging in a minor infraction to being forever memorialized as drug users, and it did so even before students were convicted of any wrongdoing. Some of the students might have been smoking cigarettes; some might have just been there with friends. But their inclusion on the website implicated them.

Norm enforcers can be mistaken. There are no rules and procedures to ensure that the Internet norm police are accurate in their assessments of who should be deemed blameworthy. An example by the mainstream media illustrates the problems with mistaken attempts to shame. In one incident in 2005, a Fox News commentator gave out the home address of a man believed to have ties to the London subway bombing. The man wasn't charged with any crime and hadn't been officially identified as a suspect. But in any case the harm wasn't suffered by the suspected terrorist. He had vacated the house three years before. Instead, a couple with three children currently occupied the home. After the broadcast, the Internet shaming brigade sprung into action. People posted satellite photos of the home online. They provided directions to the home. For several weeks after the broadcast, the couple was harassed and threatened. Their home was spray-painted with the word Terrist [sic]. The couple attempted in vain to contact Fox News to complain about the error. Eventually, Fox News issued an apology. A Fox spokesperson stated that the commentator was "reprimanded for his careless error." The commentator explained that "mistakes happen" and that he had used "the best information we had at the time." [72]

It is tempting to shame, especially when we are convinced that we have seen something blameworthy. But what if we're wrong? What if we don't know the whole story? We have developed procedures in the law to protect against such errors. No such procedures exist in the world of shaming.

Vengeance and Bullying

Some people are shamed even when they did nothing wrong. Recall what happened to the Star Wars Kid. He didn't do anything improper, yet that didn't absolve him from being shamed. Sometimes people are just mean, and a joke can get out of hand.

One person's shaming is another's personal revenge or yet another's bullying. For example, a website called Revenge World provides a forum for spurned lovers to take vengeance by writing about their exes and posting nude pictures of them. [73] According to the website's introduction: is an online community which allows its users to vent and post pictures and stories on the world wide web, viewable by the community. This sire is FREE, and will remain that way always. [74]

Some, but not all, of the people chronicled on Revenge World allegedly cheated during relationships. Many pictures posted are just the result of a bad breakup. Is this kind of revenge ever justified, no matter how unfaithful a person might have been? And even if you think it is justified in some cases, who determines when it is and isn't? One problem with shaming is that we can't always agree on who deserves to be shamed and to what degree. While we all agree on some norms, we don't agree on many others. Who controls what norms are being enforced?

Moreover, some forms of shaming can deter legitimate activities. Websites are emerging to create blacklists of individuals who file medical malpractice claims. One site started in 2004, Doctors Know Us, listed the names of malpractice plaintiffs. [75] After a New York Times article chronicled the plight of a man who was blacklisted at the site and had trouble finding physicians, the site was taken offline.

How Much Shaming Do We Need?

Although Internet shaming can help enforce norms, norms can often take care of themselves without the help of external enforcement. The law professor Robert Cooter observes that norms often work through a process called "internalization" -- people follow norms not because they fear external shaming by others but because they would feel ashamed of themselves if they violated a norm. [76] Returning to tipping, one explanation why most people tip even when there will be no penalties if they don't is that they feel as if it's the right thing to do. As the economist Ofer Azar explains, "People tip because it is the social norm; if they deviate from it they feel unfair and embarrassed." [77] Tipping norms work internally, and this internal pressure often suffices. Of course, for some norms, we may desire the added benefit of external norm enforcement, but for many norms internal self-enforcement works quite nicely on its own. As the law professor Lawrence Mitchell puts it, people "not only want to avoid blame, but blameworthiness." [78] Even if we're never caught, we can never escape from ourselves, and our internal judges are often our most stringent.


Beyond the problems I have discussed, Internet shaming can devolve into vigilantism and violence. In 2004 two commuters in San Jose, California, became fed up with single drivers who were using carpool lanes. One morning, a driver kept tailgating them in the carpool lane trying to pass. They let him pass only to discover that he had no passengers and shouldn't have been in the lane.

At that moment, the idea was born. One of the commuters explained: "We looked at each other and said, 'Somebody ought to have a Web site and post these clowns' pictures.' Then we realized, we're a couple of Web heads. We can just do it ourselves." [79]

That's how Carpool Cheats came into being:

This website is dedicated to all those who abide by the rules and brave the traffic on our freeways everyday. Many of us who commute everyday aren't able to avail ourselves of the carpool (HOY) lanes for one reason or another. When I don't have passengers, I stay out of the HOV lanes and slog along at a snail's pace to get to work or home.

I've talked with hundreds of other commuters that are annoyed by those individuals that think they're above the law or better than the rest of us, or privileged ... or something ... and can consequently drive solo in the HOV lane.

Using a high-quality digital camera, the two commuters posted photos of carpool cheats. The photos included pictures of license plates and the faces of the scurrilous motorists.

But Carpool Cheats didn't last very long. The website's content was soon removed and replaced with this notice:

NOTICE TO OUR FAITHFUL READERS website is temporarily our of service.

This is due to several threatening communications from an individual or individuals presently (but nor for long) unknown to us.

We are investigating this situation with the aid of our legal advisors and the California State Bar Association, and law enforcement officials.

We wish to thank our loyal supporters and fellow commuters who continue to use the commuter lanes in the intended manner. [80]

On the surface, Carpool Cheats sounds like sweet justice to the people who brazenly take advantage of carpool lanes. But it involves private citizens engaging in their own form of vigilante justice. What if they're wrong about a driver and there really is another passenger -- perhaps a child that they can't see? And because private citizens are taking matters into their own hands, it can incite people subjected to the shaming to retaliate in return. That's what happened with Carpool Cheats. It's what can happen any time people try to take justice into their own hands.

The Nuremberg Files

Carpool Cheats involved enforcing norms that people generally agree with. But the Internet can also be used to facilitate vigilantism by fringe groups seeking to enforce their own norms. One of the earliest attempts at Internet vigilantism was the website known as the Nuremberg Files. [81] Created in 1997 by Neal Horsley, the website listed the names and personal information of abortion doctors and their families. This was part of a campaign by a group known as the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA) to terrorize abortion doctors. The website included data on more than two hundred individuals, including names, addresses, photographs, driver's license numbers, and information about family members, such as the schools their children attended. [82] The name of the site alluded to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials following World War II. The site listed doctors who had been wounded by antiabortion activists in grey and those killed with a line through them. Another part of the website listed the names of clinic owners and workers, and spouses of abortion doctors.

After Horsley created the website in January 1997, two abortion doctors were shot at their homes that year. In 1998 an abortion clinic in Alabama was bombed and another doctor was killed by sniper fire at his home in New York. Shortly afterward, a strikethrough was placed through his name on the Nuremberg Files website.

Planned Parenthood and a group of doctors sued, contending that the website caused them to live in fear, to require police protection, and to wear bulletproof vests. The case went to trial in 1999. One doctor stated that he switched his driving route to work and rode in a separate car from the rest of his family. [83] "Every time I get a package, it makes me nervous," a doctor declared. "It's a creepy thing to have to live with, thinking every time, 'Is this something I ordered or is it a bomb?'" [84] One doctor began to wear wigs to conceal herself in public. [85] A jury awarded the doctors more than one hundred million dollars in damages. The case was appealed, with Horsley and the ACLA contending that the verdict violated their right to free speech. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding that the website involved threats of violence with the intent to intimidate rather than articulating a position to debate. [86]


Shaming is an important tool for social control, yet it can be dangerous if unchecked. When people can report on the misdeeds of others, they eliminate the anonymity that often facilitates the transgressions of norms. "How's My Driving?" programs, for example, have led to improvements in road safety. Bur such programs work best when under tight controls. In the "How's My Driving?" program, complaints about drivers are investigated and drivers are given feedback, training, and instruction. [87]

Much Internet shaming, in contrast, occurs without any formal procedures, investigation, or direct feedback to the accused offender. As a result, Internet shaming can readily get out of hand. Because the Internet allows thousands to communicate quickly, it makes it easier to form the digital equivalent to a mob. Gustave Le Bon, in his famous 1896 work The Crowd, observed that crowds have a different psychology than individuals do: "A crowd is as easily heroic as criminal."[88] Crowds can be impulsive and excitable. Psychologists describe a related phenomenon known as "group polarizing effect." As groups converge on particular issues, they tend to polarize in their opinions, resulting in more extreme points of view. [89]

People on the Internet often move quickly, like a swarm of killer bees. They often behave in moblike fashion. In China, for example, a person used an online bulletin board to shame a college student who he believed was having an affair with his wife. Readers of the bulletin board quickly exacted punishment on the student. One reader wrote: "Let's use our keyboard and mouse in our hands as weapons to chop off the heads of these adulterers." Thousands of people joined in the attack, causing the target to leave school and making his family hide away in their home. In a similar case in China, a man caught a college student having an affair with his wife. He posted the student's name online and described the affair. People quickly rallied to support the husband, providing more information about the student, including his address and phone number. The student denied the affair, even posting a short testimonial video. But the attacks didn't stop. Some people even began seeking out the student at his school and home. The husband was so surprised by the quick and vigorous reaction that he came to the defense of the student and urged a halt to the vigilantism. One of the shamers proclaimed: "What we Internet users are doing is fulfilling our social obligations. We cannot let our society fall into such a low state." [90]

The shamer's explanation for attacking another person, somebody he probably didn't even know, stems from a belief that shame is necessary to ensure social order. Without the threat of shame, people would transgress norms, making society less orderly and civil. But as some of these incidents demonstrate, although shaming is done to further social order, it paradoxically can have the opposite result. Instead of enhancing social control and order, Internet shaming often careens out of control. It targets people without careful consideration of all the facts and punishes them for their supposed infractions without proportionality. Shaming becomes uncivil, moblike, and potentially subversive of the very social order that it tries to protect.
Site Admin
Posts: 35581
Joined: Thu Aug 01, 2013 5:21 am


Return to A Growing Corpus of Analytical Materials

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 7 guests