Laverdiere Essay 2

Caitlin Laverdiere
13 December 2009

Social constructions of reputation: Importance, evolution, and ramifications

Your reputation is how other people perceive you. It is a reflection of your self: how you represent yourself to others, how you embody the values of society, and how others perceive you as fulfilling a position within a community or network. However, despite your best efforts, your reputation may not always mirror the morally upright and agreeable identity you seek to put across to others. Furthermore, the elements of our reputation that matter most to the members of our society are constantly changing. Social norms – or expected standards of right conduct – vary by geographic location and culture, and they transform over time. Thus, the expectations that determine our reputations have changed across generations and have been further influenced by the rise of written and verbal communication technologies that have shifted our social norms and altered our approaches to reputation formation and appraisal.

In The Future of Reputation, Daniel Solove explains the discrepancy surrounding our inability to fully control our reputations – which are virtually extensions of ourselves that determine how people perceive us and interact with us accordingly. Solove reasons that “despite the fact [that] 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” (33). He underlines a distinction between reputation and character, two seemingly related concepts but differing in that their formation stems from different entities. Quoting a person from the nineteenth century, Solove comments on the distinction: “‘A man’s character is what he is; a man’s reputation is what other people may imagine him to be’” (33). The idea that we lack absolute control over our reputations is unnerving. This is perhaps one of the major reasons why we value our reputations so highly – because we understand the great loss that can result from a tarnished reputation, and we have only limited ability to protect it from fraudulent claims that can permanently scar our reputations and stigmatize us in the eyes of society.

A major catalyst of reputation formation and dissemination pertains to the timeless and pervasive practice of gossip. It manifests itself in all societies and takes on many guises. Gossip is not always detrimental to our relationships, but it stands as a major determinant of reputations through affirming or condemning people’s adherence to, or infringement of, important social norms. Gossip can be true or false. Some gossip that circulates may rightly praise an individual’s unwillingness to cave in to the peer pressure of experimenting with illegal drugs – affirming the norm that illegal drug use is unethical or unallowable. Conversely, the gossip could falsely criticize an individual for recreational drug use when, in reality, the person was associated with people using drugs but did not themselves participate in the activity. True, favorable gossip can help facilitate praiseworthy accomplishments or behaviors that can boost your reputation. False or vindictive gossip, however, can have the opposite effect and can permanently tarnish an individual’s reputation. Moreover, a tainted reputation can adversely affect a person’s ability to be an active member in their community. It may prevent them from attaining a high level position in their career or may interfere with their market transactions or personal exchanges with others in the community. Additionally, gossip can spread through different mediums and social circles. People have many different types of social networks, which differ in size and composition. Certain forms of gossip may be acceptable within some social circles but frowned upon in others. Norms are reflected in the ideas of permissible and impermissible modes of conduct and acceptable discussion of such conduct within different networks. People have purely social networks, professional networks, religious networks, familial networks, and many more. Gossip that circulates through one or two networks may be condoned, but if it seeps into another network that does not maintain the same norms – or has different perceptions of a particular norm – the gossip can be detrimental to an individual’s reputation and acceptance in that network.

Historically, gossip has gone through many transformations and modes of dissemination. Before the rise of technology, word-of-mouth was the primary method that gossip spread. Affirming and condemning norms through verbal communication has probably been around since the beginning of time. This had both positive and detrimental effects on reputations, but it restricted it to individuals within relatively close proximity to each other. Increased mobility changed the scope of gossip-sprawl as Solove points out: “Urbanization and mobility changed the nature of communities” (92). Within close-knit communities, everyone knew everyone else, and thus the sting of negative gossip and social stigma reverberated strongly within each community and severely affected an individual’s reputation without allowing them to relocate to another community (Solove 91). As people became more mobile, they could more readily change communities and escape the negative ramifications of one community’s gossip for the naiveté of a new community.

Reputations were also transformed with the rise of new technologies that disseminated news and ideas and had the potential to amplify the implications of gossip. The first prominent technology that affected the formation of reputations was the printing press, and then the subsequent rise of newspapers and other print mediums. Solove explains that “New printing technology enabled newspapers to be sold much more cheaply than ever before – for just a penny. These new papers were filled with news of scandals, family squabbles, public drunkenness, and petty crimes” (106). Sensationalistic journalism led to issues of libel that tarnished the reputations of many public figures. Additionally, print brought about a new issue that people had to contend with – the issue of permanence. No longer was gossip spread from one person to another and eventually forgotten; it could now be permanently archived in whatever publication printed it. E.L. Godkin astutely commented on the effects of print journalism on the invasion of privacy and its effects on people’s reputations: “gossip about private individuals…makes its victim, with all his imperfections on his head, known to hundreds or thousands miles away from his place of abode” (cited in Solove, 108). Subsequently, following the rise of print journalism, was Thomas Edison’s 1876 invention of the telephone. The telephone allowed people to verbally converse with each other across great distances – causing a revolution in verbal gossip that could more easily transcend social communities. What had previously been privy to a small, close-knit community now erupted across geographic distances and various social networks. This had detrimental effects on reputation. A person’s reputation was not composed solely of one community’s knowledge of their actions; rather, their reputation could follow them from location to location and potentially consisted of many different peoples judgments from different areas and community networks.

We now have the Internet and the rise of Web 2.0 technologies. The widespread use of social networking sites, blogs, and online communication technology, such as email and IM, allow for an extensive information exchange, and consequently, a prolific rise in online gossip and privacy invasion that has dramatically and insidiously affected our ability to form valid reputations of others and to protect the alteration of our own reputations. The Internet also often allows for anonymity when interacting and posting on interactive websites. This can encourage freedom of expression and protect people from exposing their identities to dangerous people. However, it also decreases the accountability people are expected to maintain when posting about other individuals. This brings about many questions concerning the dichotomy of our private and public selves, the extent of our free speech, and methods of redress for violations we experience against our reputations.

Historically, dueling was a common practice among gentlemen to seek redress for a tarnished reputation and to uphold the social norms of honor and integrity. The need to resolve conflicts that lead to tarnished reputations and to uphold the social norms society values still exists today, but the means we have to go about it are contentious. Solove notes, “Duels served this function for centuries…[they] satisfied a social need…. But something still had to serve as the vehicle for people to safeguard their reputations, and the courts became the main option” (117). In a post on the blog Concurring Opinions, Nancy Kim asserts, “Words can and do cause harm and digital words create unique harms due to the unique nature of Internet communication…posters may be able to play roles that enable them to act more aggressively and distastefully than they would offline…[but] their targets must live their daily, offline lives with the painful consequences of what these role playing posters say to and about them” (CCR Symposium – The Rhetoric of Free Speech). Online gossip and criticism not only reaches a wider audience, but also has more severe consequences that arise from anonymous posters feeling that they can overreach the usual restraints they would face if forced to make their comments in person, exposing their identity in the process. Nathaniel Gleicher takes this concern further in his comment on the same blog: “When online harassment is allowed to continue unabated, its targets are silenced – not because of legal pressures, but because of the escalating spiral of threats that online harassment has often lead to” (CCR Symposium: Rhetorically Speaking). Targeted individuals may feel that they cannot seek redress for their severely damaged reputation because public attention would enhance the negative stigma already attached to them. The Internet has thus brought about many new problems relating to the rise of interactive social networks and blogs.

These modes of communication have changed the social norms regarding gossip and ideas of acceptability when virtually interacting with others. We all preach the ideals of free speech and independence, but I think the softening of norms regarding acceptable speech and opinion online has definite limits that even free speech cannot trump. Quoted in the USA Today article, “’Shanks’ case over Google’s release of email address tests limits of bloggers’ anonymity,” Stanford law professor, Mark Lemley, stated, “Anonymity led to an unfortunate social dynamic where people got the impression that they can say anything they want about someone else, and they’ll never be called into account.” He contends that cases like the “Skanks case” in which Google was sued for releasing the identity of a woman who posted negative gossip about model Liskula Cohen on the website “Skanks in NYC,” “serve a valuable purpose of reminding the world that free speech is an important value, but it doesn’t give you an unrestrained right to lie” (USA Today). In a world increasingly dominated by the Internet, and the need to have a strong online reputation for our professional and social advancement, others should not be allowed to exert so much control over shaping our reputations in whatever ways they see fit. It’s inescapable that other people’s opinions and beliefs will influence how we are portrayed, but there should be a limit, and we need to seek out measures to exert more of our own control to ensure that the perception we have of our character is reflected as closely as possible in our socially constructed reputation.

If we can encourage norm enforcement online and create clearer contexts through which we extract and integrate information in our formation of opinions and judgments regarding other people, the Internet will be less threatening to our reputational wellbeing and may, instead, act as a positive norm enforcement tool. As such, it can pave the way for future technologies that will adapt and transform reputations and norms as we see them today. If we remedy our problems now, we can hope for less intrusive and damaging effects in the future.

Works Cited

Gleicher, Nathaniel. “CCR Symposium: Rhetorically Speaking.” Concurring Opinions. 15 April 2009. LexisNexis Academic. Online. 12 Dec. 2009.

Lieberman, David. “’Skanks’ case over Google’s release of email address tests limits of bloggers’ anonymity.” USA Today. 25 Aug. 2009. Online. 13 Dec. 2009.

Kim, Nancy. “CCR Symposium: The Rhetoric of Free Speech.” Concurring Opinions. 14 April 2009. LexisNexis Academic. Online. 12 Dec. 2009.

Solove, Daniel. The Future of Reputation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

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