Online Self Branding and the Law: Daniel J. Solove – The Future of Reputation
March 6th, 2008

BookDaniel J. Solove teaches at the George Washington University’s Law School. He recently released The Future of Reputation, a free online book that undertakes the relationship between gossip, rumor and privacy on the web. Valuing his field of expertise, he also explores the limits of what law can do to protect our reputation online. This is a must read for anyone interested in the micro-social effects of the noisy web chatter, the image one creates for him/herself in the online environment and the ways in which such an image can be, on one hand, mudded by virtual enemies under the cover of anonymity or purely by the gossips of big-mouthed people, and, on the other hand, positively leveraged through the network of friends or through the professional recommendations networks.

This is practically self branding with a firm touch of law implications. If corporations and other institutional / juridical entities can control and defend their image online, why couldn’t an individual do that? But to what extent and with what efficiency? Thus, the author sets an anchor in a new, ever evolving field of research, as the phenomenon of online reputation is even younger than the young Internet itself and is affected by the same intrinsic dynamics, in permanent change due to the rise of new web technologies.

For those who don’t have much time at their disposal, I recommend reading at least the Conclusions chapter. And those not crazy about reading on their computer screen should know that the book is available in printed format on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And again, for those only interested in quintessential quotes, here’s what I consider to be an straight-to-the-point excerpt (from the last chapter of conclusions):

What will the future hold for our reputation? I have explored in this book the ways our reputations are shaped by the exposure of personal information. We love to talk about each other, and the information we circulate has profound consequences for how people are judged. In many instances, revealing another’s personal information can be beneficial to society. It enables communities to enforce norms. It educates us about the lives of others. It allows us to better assess others’ reputations. But it also can be problematic. Gossip can unfairly stain a person’s reputation; it often exists as a bundle of half-truths and incomplete tales. False rumors can wreak havoc on reputations. And shaming can spin out of control. We cling to only a limited degree of control over our reputation, but this control can make a world of difference. By concealing information about our private lives and our violations of social taboos, and by preventing damaging falsehoods about us from circulating, we can make ourselves less vulnerable to misunderstanding, misjudgment, or unfair condemnation.

The problems escalate when anybody can spread information far and wide over the Internet. Whispering voices and babbling tongues become permanent records readily found in an online search. Increasingly, people are gossiping and shaming others online, as well as exposing their own tawdry secrets. And increasingly, people are googling one another, including employers who are using the information they find online for hiring decisions.

We are witnessing a clash between privacy and free speech, a conflict between two important values that are essential for our autonomy, selfdevelopment, freedom, and democracy. We must do something to address the problem, but if we err too much in one direction or the other, the situation could become much worse. In this book, I have attempted to provide a framework for how we can rework the law to make it a useful instrument in balancing privacy and free speech. I have suggested delicate compromises that involve making some modest sacrifices on both sides.

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