From Facebook to YouTube, Our ‘Reputation’ at Stake

GWU law prof analyzes the dangerous potential of new technologies

Everyone remembers the Star Wars Kid. How could you not? His wild gesticulating with standard golfing implements transformed him into an Internet celebrity overnight and was no doubt a popular source of laughter when the video made its debut several years ago, even before the advent of YouTube. But does anyone remember his real name? Did anyone even know his real name? And did anyone ever discover how this event changed the life of the Star Wars Kid? Probably not. The Internet stripped the boy of his name, of his very identity, and the danger of losing one’s reputation because of the Internet has only increased since then.

In “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet,” George Washington Law Professor Daniel J. Solove eloquently postulates that the new freedom of information-flow on the Internet can enslave us by ruining our reputations and preventing us from becoming the people we want to be. This statement is indeed slightly extreme, and may put off some readers initially, but Solove backs his point by highlighting several case studies, including the Star Wars Kid, that illustrate the dangers of one of the modern age’s greatest tools.

That focus on specific cases is far and away the book’s greatest strength. Rather than simply warning readers about possible scenarios, Solove shows first-hand the lives that have been ruined, combining descriptions of the original events with verbatim reproductions of comments posted by various bloggers throughout the Web. Most students have been told to be wary of what they post on information-sharing sites such as MySpace or Facebook.com, but few think about the damage another person can do.

Solove opens his book with the example of Dog Poop Girl, a Korean woman who did not clean up after her small dog defecated on the subway. A fellow passenger snapped a picture of the scene, and soon she unwittingly became a national joke. Like the Star Wars Kid, whose friends found and posted his video on the Internet without his permission, the Korean woman had no control over her newfound “fame” and was eventually shunned into dropping out of school. This is a far cry from posting slightly scandalous photographs of a Saturday night shindig on Facebook.com, but the threat to one’s future is just as real.

The second half of the book—which functions as the “Here’s the Solution” to the first part’s “Here’s the Problem”—is just as interesting in that Solove again focuses his discussion of the murky problem of law on the Internet through the lens of specific cases. The author stresses the importance of finding a middle ground between the libertarian approach, which calls for little to no government tampering with the Internet, and the authoritarian approach, which calls for strict control. He then highlights individual laws by discussing real life situations in which they were applied. Although some of Solove’s comparisons to events long in the past seem a little contrived, the second half of his book is almost as successful as the first.

Solove’s crisp and refreshing writing strays from the ponderous tone many writers take when criticizing the Internet, achieving a balance of humor and levity that keeps the pages turning and demonstrates a real understanding of and engagement with the youthful Internet culture he analyzes. Another key strength is the unassuming nature of the author’s prose; one does not have to be at all familiar with how the Internet works or what the current laws regarding Internet usage entail to fully enjoy this often saddening chronicle of lives destroyed by virtual gossip.

Earlier this year, Miss Teen South Carolina’s unabashedly awful attempt to answer the question of why so many Americans cannot find the United States on a map quickly became an Internet phenomenon. In the years before the Internet, a few might have chuckled as they watched the TV, some may even have shown their friends a clip on a recorded VHS, but her mistake would undoubtedly be soon buried under the weight of real news. Not so today, when the embarrassing video is only a click away on YouTube.

Eventually, Miss Teen South Carolina appeared on a talk show to apologize for her flub and answer the question in a reasonable manner. Unfortunately, the large percentage of those mocked on the Internet do not have the high profile that allows them this option. Though they may embarrass themselves or others on a global scale, they have no similar means of saving face. Perhaps Solove’s book, which above all else advocates caution when posting information on the Internet, can help stem the damning tide of information by showing just how permanent such harm can be.