Book Review: The Future of Reputation

Professor Dan Solove, of  Concurring Opinions fame, presents a fully conceived vision of permanent purgatory in his new book, The Future of Reputation.  For someone who came a little late to the blogosphere, Dan’s accumulation of anecdotes to demonstrate the potential danger of the internet kept my rapt attention.  No, it wasn’t a matter of great humor or spellbinding story-telling, but more like watching car crash after car crash that happened on the corner where I’ve just moved in.  It scared me.

The book is divided in two, with the first half a remarkably thorough exploration of how and why the internet poses problems and issues that are beyond in breadth anything humankind has faced before.  The thoughtful expositions are interspersed with tales of disaster from the web, enough to hold your interest as you try to get your arms around the myriad ways in which gossip, rumor and shaming have wreaked havoc on undeserving individuals.

For parents, particularly those who don’t have a full appreciation of the power of the internet, the first half of Reputation is a must read.  While most can grasp the implications of junior posting inappropriate photos of himself, or writing something he considers funny at 15, there is much more to fear.  When he tries to get a job some day, how many parents have considered the implications of a well-behaved junior being inadvertently skewered by some friend who years before?  With photos!

Dan does a superb job of explaining the interrelationships that give rise to potential, and permanent, harm.  With such important stories as “dog poop girl,” even kids will eventually get the drift that their online activity can cause massive damage, unintended or very much intended, that spirals out of control.  Indeed, Dan drives the “spiraling out of control” theme home throughout the first half of the book, making it clear that there is absolutely no assurance that anything posted online can be “unposted” if scurrilous, false or you just happen to change your mind. 

To the extent the book bogs down in theory, as Dan tends to repeat his very clearly written points a second or third time, just to be sure you got it, there’s always another great story on the next page to keep you plowing ahead.  While it sometimes feels disorganized, it’s more a product of the synergistic nature of the problems, making the headaches difficult to neatly categorize.  One can’t help but wonder how many new, unanticipated problems are waiting around the corner.

The first half of the book is quite a cautionary tale, to be read and digested by anyone who posts online, or knows anyone who posts online, or doesn’t know anyone and rarely leaves the house.  The point is, no one is safe, and Dan backs up the claim with example after example.  The only reason the stories are funny is because they aren’t about you.  Yet.

The second half of the book is an effort to find a way to address the plethora of problems.  Given the breadth of issues, complicated by the myriad of people who are potentially involved, the mere idea that the problems are subject to resolution may be somewhat arrogant.  Still, Dan gives it a shot.  Alas, the answers do not come as easily, or as successfully, as the problems.

Reputation does a thorough and convincing job of explaining existing law, and its inadequacy to deal with the nature of these new problems.  Unfortunately, Dan’s “radical” ways to deal with these problems offers little of practical use.  And frankly, they aren’t too radical.  If anything, Dan’s solutions seem underwhelming given the enormity of the potential problems.

Boiled down, Dan would require putative plaintiffs and defendants to engage in informal efforts to resolve problems (mediation and/or arbitration) before litigation.  How would one compel this?  Who would mediate?  What would happen with the ongoing ruination of a person’s life while they were awaiting an appointment with a mediator?  There are no answers.

The next step would be litigation, recognizing new torts and rights with a balancing act intended to accommodate the degree of harm, permanence, disproportionality, falsehood, abuse, privacy, etc.  But oddly, Dan interjects one hard point into this otherwise fuzzy conceptual paradigm, that damages should be capped because bloggers generally don’t have much money.  This betrays Dan’s politics in the guise of avoiding the chilling of free speech.  Of course, it ignores the degree of harm done to the victim (hence, the amount of damages), not to mention the ability to get blood from a rock.  If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

While The Future of Reputation may not produce any viable cure, it is more than worthwhile to read to understand and appreciate the illness.  Reputation makes it evident that we who live in the age of the internet have much more at risk than we realize, and to the extent it’s possible, it is up to us, our friends and acquaintances, and even our enemies, to create a new set of norms that will allow us to survive with some vestige of privacy, and maybe even some dignity, intact.  For this alone, Reputation is important and should be read by parents, children, and especially anyone who thinks this could never touch them.

13 comments on “Book Review: The Future of Reputation

  1. Simple Justice

    The Flea Exposed, He Returns to Tell His Story

    In my opinion, the most significant event in the blawgosphere in 2007 was the Flea’s live-blogging of his medical malpractice trial, and subsequent exposure on the front page of the
    Boston Globe, brought to light by the efforts of Eric Turkewitz of New York Personal Injury Blog.

  2. Simple Justice

    The Flea Exposed, He Returns to Tell His Story

    In my opinion, the most significant event in the blawgosphere in 2007 was the Flea’s live-blogging of his medical malpractice trial, and subsequent exposure on the front page of the
    Boston Globe, brought to light by the efforts of Eric Turkewitz of New York Personal Injury Blog.

  3. Simple Justice

    The Flea Exposed, He Returns to Tell His Story

    In my opinion, the most significant event in the blawgosphere in 2007 was the Flea’s live-blogging of his medical malpractice trial, and subsequent exposure on the front page of the
    Boston Globe, brought to light by the efforts of Eric Turkewitz of New York Personal Injury Blog.

  4. Simple Justice

    The Risk of Existing in Cyberspace

    There have been numerous efforts, stories, suggestions and concerns posed over the past week alone about the preservation of reputation online.

  5. Simple Justice

    The Risk of Existing in Cyberspace

    There have been numerous efforts, stories, suggestions and concerns posed over the past week alone about the preservation of reputation online.

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