The introduction to Daniel J. Solove’s book, “The Future of Reputation” discusses the idea of ‘digital skeletons’ and how the continuous spread of information across the internet can limit our freedom. Solove begins his introduction with a story of the “dog poop girl”, whose public behavior was exposed online. The images of her blew up online and she quickly became the target of international shame. Solove explains that the “dog poop girl” is just one example of personal information or behavior being shared online that those involved would like to keep private. When private personal matters are shared on the internet, people can easily be identified, have more of their ‘digital skeletons’ dug up, and be the subject of further public shame. Someone’s single mistake on the internet 10+ years ago could be a mistake that continues to affect them to this day, which Solove addresses in examining the implications of private lives being exposed on the internet and what he believes can be done to reach “a better balance between privacy and free speech” (Solove 4). Instances like the one involving the “dog poop girl” show us that blogging and the internet, now more than ever, can play a powerful role in norm-enforcement and holding people accountable for their actions. But Solove questions the potential negatives of norm policing and exposing someone’s public mistakes. Was it necessary to expose the “dog poop girl’s” identity with no consideration for her side of the story, knowing that she will never be able to wipe the stain of the incident from her online record? Do we want to live in a world where any online mistakes we make will stick with us throughout our entire life, with little to no chance to defend or explain ourselves?
Personally, I feel very conflicted about the widespread exposure of people committing shameful public actions. I keep thinking back to a story from several months ago, where a video was circulating on social media of a boy violently throwing a kitten in the street. People were quick to share the horrible video, in hopes of identifying the teen and bringing him to justice. This worked and the boy was later arrested (the kitten survived too). I certainly think the internet is a useful tool for holding people’s actions or words accountable, but I know the public exposure and shame can go too far. If I compare this situation to the one involving the “dog poop girl”, I’m far more sympathetic to her situation. One involved someone not cleaning up after themselves, which is annoying and rude, but the other involved the cruel and intentional abuse of an animal that wasn’t able to defend itself, which I find to be a far more inexcusable crime. It’s also important to note that the woman didn’t share the pictures of herself, someone else did, while the teen had someone record him doing so and uploaded it to a social media platform, clearly meant for others to see. We must take each specific public exposure/shaming situation into consideration and weigh the gravity of the public mistakes involved. If we don’t, as Solove puts it, we’ll “enslave ourselves by making it impossible to escape from the shackles of our past” (4).