Too Much Information Damages Your Reputation

TMI Nation – Reason Magazine.

I love Reason. They’re one of the best magazines out there. It’s not just because they’re libertarian, but because they also cover technology, policy, and even occasionally stuff like transhumanism and science. They do a lot of things.

The above link is an article by Greg Beato on how, in our social media age, we share so many things, our reputation’s are bound to take a beating no matter what happens, and we are all at the mercy of information, most of which we can’t control, but don’t even know exists in the first place. Here’s a snippet:

That our permanent records finally live up to their name is unsettling. Over a lifetime, even relatively pure souls generate piles of dirty laundry. In his 2007 book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, contemplates what may happen when information about our pasts—information, that is, that was “once scattered, forgettable, and localized”—becomes too comprehensive, too cumulative, too retrievable by anyone with a computer. “The more freedom people have to spread information online, the more likely that people’s private secrets will be revealed in ways that can hinder their opportunities in the future,” he writes.

In part, what worries Solove and other observers of the online world is how easily the Internet allows individuals to publish false and defamatory claims about others. “So far,” Reputation.com co-founder Michael Fertik explains in his 2010 book Wild West 2.0, “U.S. courts have held that [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996] completely exempts websites from liability for the actions of their users—including defamation and other torts against private individuals.”

But what may be most unnerving about the Web is not how it empowers malicious smear merchants but how it standardizes chronic self-disclosure through mechanisms as innocuous as Facebook “likes,” and how it allows content aggregators to amass the tiny truths we disclose about ourselves in ways we can neither predict nor control. Imagine car insurers monitoring your tweetstream to see how often you use Foursquare to check-in at bars at least 30 miles from your apartment. Imagine dating sites assigning you a narcissism quotient based on how often you review hair salons and Pilates instructors on Yelp.com.

[…]

Still, if you’re the kind of person who believes the electric chair is an appropriate penalty for people who cut in line at the bagel shop, 21st-century justice may exceed even your wildest fantasies. Soon you’ll be able to snap a photo of anyone whose public behavior rubs you the wrong way, determine their real identity, and let the Internet crowd-source their punishment. With even minor transgressions triggering public shaming campaigns, parking space theft will plummet and movie theaters will become quiet as cemeteries. But do we really want to inhabit this dystopian Eden of compulsory virtue?

There was a really good short story about a society like this. The story was “The Right’s Tough,” by Robert J. Sawyer, and I found it in an anthology called Visions of Liberty, which is sadly out of print. In it, Earth is an anarcho-capitalist utopia, but everyone carries weblinks that identify their reputation score. For instance, a thief moving through a crowd warns everyone else’s weblinks, and so a bubble emerges around the thief. That’s a good application. However, just before that, one character asks for another to cover him for lunch, but the second character’s weblink pulls up the first’s history, showing that he had overdue debt–and that he was stingy on the tip last year with a third person. I think we can all agree that is just TMI.

Then again, maybe I’m just an old fart.

One good idea I like in the piece is the concept of “reputation bankruptcy,” where you get information on you wiped every so often. Bankruptcy is a vital part of our market, where people who have made mistakes can wipe their slates clean and try again. It’s necessary; if you’re never allowed to recover from failure, how can you succeed down the line? I don’t see why it shouldn’t be extended to reputation and information. Beato’s own solution is to overpower the bad data with good data, which I suppose works, but that seems to be hewing too close to “just be a good guy and the truth will come out.” That doesn’t always work.

As for myself, I have my Facebook and old Livejournal locked down, with the occasional public entries. My Twitter is public, but it’s intended to be. I’m careful about what I say–though I do occasionally swear–and I don’t rush into things (or at least, don’t try to.) I will admit, it is extremely annoying to do so, and I don’t feel it’s fair. We shouldn’t have to do it. Unfortunately, life is not fair, and we have to compromise. Maybe that will change one day. But it will not be this day.