The first Chapter of The Future of Reputation by Daniel Solove tells the story of a lady who refused to clean up her dog’s poop on a Korean subway. The story exploded online, as stories about annoying people sometimes do, throwing the poop lady into the modern whirlpool of online shame. As the author points out, this is a phenomenon entirely dependant on this new medium, a social occurrence which simply couldn’t happen without the internet. From here we can explore the ways in which the internet will shape our reputations, with an inescapable permanence.
I have less sympathy for the dog shit lady than I did for the teenager who stole a phone, which is strange. Obviously there’s the fact that the dog lady was an adult, but still, she didn’t break the law and to some extent I do think it’s wrong that she became infamous for one bad decision. The issue the is reputation, and I think the article makes a lot of important points about reputation in the online age. The most important points are that stories sometimes go viral inexplicably, which can upend someone’s life, and that those stories will stay online forever.
However, looking at viral stories seems to give a false impression, since they are outliers in online life, not the norm. Although there does seem to be a shame lottery online, where some random person gets dunked on by a million people, the odds of any one person winning that lottery are rare. In the age of social media especially, the more important question is how we curate our own online reputation, and the way it can be effected in normal, not extreme ways. For example, putting the wrong picture of yourself may tank a job offer, and that picture will never go away completely, but if you delete it from your own profile, an employer checking your page won’t see it. There is an exemption for famous people, whose pasts will never stop haunting them, but that isn’t really new, and most people aren’t famous.
Back to the dog lady and the shame lottery, I think it’s important to point out how viral stories have changed over time. So many stories go viral across so many platforms now that every story is quickly replaced. That may say something horrible about our attention spans, and it represents a limit to how much people can change the world by sharing their stories (Flint Michigan still doesn’t have clean water). However, when it comes to reputations, the effect is that stories don’t stay with us for very long. They stay online, in the cold dark abyss of Google’s search results, and they can always be unearthed, but they are not in the open, like the Scarlet Letter, where people are always reminded.
Still, it’s absolutely true that people can find things out about you online that you wish they wouldn’t, which is the most important point of the story. The public sphere especially is more public than ever, because anyone with a camera, which is everyone at this point, has a potential audience of billions. What’s interesting here is that someone could take a video in public, only meaning to share it with their friends, the way people have always shared stories, and suddenly see it spread beyond what they ever wanted. I know, for example, that I would take a picture like the one in this story, but I wouldn’t want it to actually affect the person. I wouldn’t even want them to find out it was taken. That difference between the intention of the person with the camera, and the consequence of their actions, is itself an important factor that we grapple with. The openness of the internet makes it impossible to have that kind of safely closed off interaction.
It’s a fact that our reputations are preserved online, and the chapter does a good job of laying out the fundamentals of what that means. What’s harder to know is that way that the internet will change what a reputation means, and what kinds of public behavior is acceptable or harmful. For example, I think it’s likely that certain kinds of behavior on Facebook that would have hurt someone’s job prospects in 2010 would not have the same effect today, just because we’ve all become more comfortable with having personal, workplace inappropriate public lives.
In short, I think the dog story illustrates new aspects of reputation that are fundamental to the internet, but it’s not the whole picture. Generation Google has long been replaced by generation Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, all of which not only change what people see from us, but how they see it, and how we act. There is always an incredible danger now, all around us, threatening to pull a curtain at our worst moments so an audience of millions can gawk and stare at us in our shame. Still, I would say that’s a good thing, which is what surprised me the most reading the dog story.
Fear of social harm is what makes us better people. The dog story itself shows an interesting conflict between old and new versions of public life, because the truth is that the dog lady would not have acted that way if she were surrounded by people she knew, who would remember what she did. The phenomenon of seeing people publicly who aren’t a part of your life at all is itself a pretty new social reality, which is why most of us are instinctively worried about looking like an asshole even if nobody we know is around. The ability to act anti socially knowing that it won’t have an effect is itself a malignant aspect of modern life, that the internet, by connecting everyone, helps to erase.
So, in spite of the urge to look at stories like the dog shit lady as some dystopian nightmare, I think the overall effect is positive, if disproportional at times. Because you should clean up your shit, and if you don’t you should feel guilty about it. You’re supposed to feel bad when you do things that upset other people. The poop lady’s story is an example of people adjusting to that new reality. There’s no way she could have even conceived what happened, but now we can, which means that now if your dog pooped in public you would probably try to clean it up, especially if you saw someone pointing their phone in your direction.