July 10, 2008

Solove, Daniel J. The future of reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the internet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 246pp.

Another cautionary book about the effect of the Internet on our lives, this one concentrating on the effect that it can have on our privacy.

Overall, I liked the book for its detailed exploration of the effects, mostly potentially negative, of blogs and other social tools can have on our lives, how we can regret things we expose about ourselves and the things other people can expose and reveal about us. How little incidents can burst into Internet controversies and our 15 minutes can be excruciating. On the other hand, there were some vaguely Chicken Littleish aspects of the book as I feel some aspects were oversold. The book also has a academic and legalistic tone at times, drifting away from the more popular tone it maintains most of the time. Some of the extensive legal information in some of the chapters was probably not necessary. That and the occasional repetitiveness gave the impression that the book was a little padded -- that it could have been an absolutely fabulous 20 page essay in The New Yorker but not so much a 246 page book. The highly legalistic middle chapters almost lost me.

So, what's the book about?

At the beginning we learn about the Dog Poop Girl and the Star Wars kid and all the others who've been exposed to extreme humiliation on the Net against their wishes. It's an interesting discussion about the control we should have over our reputations online: do minor transgressions deserve the over the top exposure to ridicule, does some harmless fun deserve any? Should we be able to have any control if a jilted girlfriend blogs about us on a very public blog. Should gossip and slander fall under freedom of speech?

When we trespass societal norms, society gets us back into line by shaming us into behaving. That's fine in a village, but shaming someone on the Net is beyond global. And should minors be treated differently than adults? And if so, how to enforce it. Shaming on the Net can be all out of proportion to the crime.

Once upon a time, if someone violated our privacy or insulted us, we challenged them to a duel! What legal recourse do we have in the online world? And should we have legal recourse or should it just be the wild west? How do you balance free speech with anonymity and accountability?

In the end, we have to find a balance between freedom and privacy, anonymity and accountability. But how? This book certainly places a lot of trust in various legal systems to solve our problems for us, but I'm not so sure. It really is the wild west out here on the Internet and there's no sheriff in sight.

This is a brave book in many ways, to try and throw a rope around the nebulous and unstructured web but perhaps a bit naive as well. Worth reading, for sure as it will make you think and think deeply about some very important issues. Probably there should be the short version, something that we can all get our kids to read before they expose themselves too widely on the Web.

Any library collection that covers Internet culture would benefit from this book. In an academic context it fits is any of law, science, business or social science collections. Even high schools and public libraries should consider this book as the ideas are certainly relevant and vital for young people.