‘The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet’

I figured there was no more important book I should read over Yom Kippur than this one by law professor Daniel J. Solove.

It was my second time through in three months (I also read it while spending Shabbos in Utah with Marc Gafni).

Solove writes on page 63:

Gossip is often thought of as unseemly, but it has both good and bad qualities. As the philosopher Aaron Ben Ze’ev observes, “Gossip is engaged in for pleasure, not for the purpose of hurting someone.” He notes that most damage from gossip is minor. Gossip, Ben Ze’ev concludes, isn’t “virtuous” but it is not “vicious” either. Indeed, much gossip isn’t malicious, and it is some- thing that most of us engage in. Although people quickly denounce gossip, it remains ubiquitous. According to one study, about two-thirds of all conver- sations involve gossip, and as one writer sums it up, “What people talk about is mostly other people.”

In countless societies, whether primitive or modern, gossip generally func- tions in similar ways. Gossip is essential to establishing reputations. According to the psychologist Nicholas Emler: “Gossip does not merely disseminate repu- tational information but is the very process whereby reputations are decided. Reputations do not exist except in the conversations that people have about one another.” Gossip is a way to expose people’s infringements of norms, and it is an essential tool for a community to ensure that its norms are respected.

Gossip helps shape people’s reputations without confrontation. The an- thropologist Karen Brison notes that because it often takes place behind a per- son’s back, “gossip allows people to assess their neighbors and criticize digressions [from norms] without starting fights and breaching surface amity.” In other words, gossip can help enforce norms in a way that eases social tension and confrontation.

The legal scholar Diane Zimmerman argues that gossip teaches us a lot about society and human behavior: “By providing people with a way to learn about social groups to which they do not belong, gossip increases intimacy and a sense of community among disparate individuals and groups.” For Zim- merman, “gossip is a basic form of information exchange that teaches about other lifestyles and attitudes, and through which community values are changed or reinforced.” We can learn a lot when we rip off the veil and peer into people’s private lives.

In some instances, disclosing a person’s secrets helps change certain social norms. Some norms persist even though many people violate them in the shadows. When this behavior is brought into the limelight, society will be forced to confront this norm more directly and realize just how often it is be- ing violated. Society’s hypocrisy will be revealed, and this might spark a change in the norm.

Although gossip can help shape reputations, educate us about the lives of others, and stimulate the evolution of norms, it has some other qualities that are less savory. “People are careless when they gossip,” Brison observes, “be- cause they know they will not have to take responsibility for their words. This means that rumor spreads easily and the truth is distorted.”

As the philosopher Martin Heidegger noted, gossip “spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted in this gossiping and passing the word along, a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on increases to complete groundlessness.” In other words, the problem with gossip is that it is based on unsubstantiated rumors, and people often don’t bother to learn the full story. For Heidegger, gossip is a superficial way of learning information about others. It doesn’t involve a serious attempt to understand another person but often remains shallow and careless. People rarely use gossip as a way to delve into the psycho- logical depths of others, but rather consume it like a form of greasy fast food. Gossip is a delicious treat, often without much nutritional value. It certainly can inform us about the lives of others, but much gossip merely titillates without teaching. Gossip is rarely a dose of pure truth; it is often intermixed with fiction. The literature professor Patricia Meyer Spacks astutely notes that gossip “plays with reputation, circulating truths and half-truths and falsehoods about the activities, sometimes about the motives and feelings, of others.”

Although sociologists often point out that gossip is essential for social con- trol, people often gossip in ways that don’t benefit society but that instead fur- ther their own self-interest. According to Brison, “When people gossip they are less interested in preserving social order than in advancing their own po- litical fortunes and slandering their rivals.” Gossip can thus function as a weapon to wound others without providing any significant contribution to the community.

With respect to norms, gossip works in two directions—it can undermine norms, but it can also affirm them. “On the one hand,” the legal scholar Rob- ert Post observes, “gossip threatens to subvert community norms by exposing back-stage behavior and revealing the pretensions, faults, peccadillos, and scandal of community actors. On the other hand, gossip reaffirms community norms by bringing social pressure to bear on their enforcement.”

According to the law professor Paul Schwartz, revealing people’s norm violations will not always effectively change norms. The number of people whose secrets are outed is often insufficient to force a change in norms. Perhaps if the veils on our lives were all removed simultaneously, society might collectively discard certain norms. However, the process of changing norms is complicated, and it is far from certain that more gossip will effectuate change in norms. Those who seek to challenge norms they dislike by gossiping about transgressors may instead increase the oppressiveness of the norms without doing much to eradicate them. Disclosing personal secrets can create an atmosphere of coercion, blackmail, and witch hunts.

Solove writes: "The Internet is transforming the nature and effects of gossip. It is making gossip more permanent and widespread, but less discriminating in the appropriateness of audience."

"When we determine whether gossip is good or not, we must look at the who, what, and why of it. We should ask: Who is making the disclosure? Is the disclosure made to the appropriate audience? Is the purpose behind the gossip one we should encourage or discourage?"

Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry writes: "Gossip flourishes in close-knit, highly connected social networks but atrophies in loose-knit, unconnected ones."

Sounds like Orthodox Judaism would be a great place for gossip.

Novelist Milan Kundera says: "Any man who was the same in both public and intimate life would be a monster. He would be without spontaneity in his private life and without responsibility in public life."

I tend to reveal too much information too fast. Solove writes:

Revealing private facts when first getting to know a person can be even more distorting. According to [sociologist Erving] Goffman, people need time to establish relationships before revealing secrets. Immediate honesty can be costly. When we first meet somebody, we have little invested in that person. We haven’t built any bonds of friendship or developed any feelings for that person. So if we learn about a piece of that person’s private life that seems bizarre or unpleasant, it’s easy to just walk away.

Solove writes on page 66:

The judge and legal scholar Richard Posner believes that people shouldn’t be able to hide discreditable facts about themselves. According to Posner: "Prying enables one to form a more accurate picture of a friend or colleague, and the knowledge gained is useful in social or professional dealings with him." Posner argues that people often want to hide harmful facts about themselves for their own gain, a practice that is similar to a merchant concealing defects in a product.

…Privacy inhibits the establishment of trust because privacy "makes it difficult to know others’ reputations," and knowing reputations is a prerequisite to trusting strangers.

From page 92:

Internet shaming has many benefits. Without shaming, people like the dog poop girl, the subway flasher, and the creep who harasses women in the street would often go unpunished. In a world of increasingly rude and uncivil behavior, shaming helps society maintain its norms of civility and etiquette.

Online shaming also gives people a chance to fight back, to voice their disapproval of inappropriate behavior and even of poor customer service.

Solove writes on page 94: "One of the chief drawbacks of Internet shaming is the permanence of its effects. Internet shaming creates an indelible blemish on a person’s identity. Being shamed in cyberspace is akin to being marked for life. It’s similar to being forced to wear a digital scarlet letter or being branded or tattooed. People acquire permanent digital baggage. They are unable to escape their past, which is forever etched into Google’s memory."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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