The Reputation of Shaming

March 7, 2010

Online shaming has its benefits.
It getting too bad a rap would harm all users.

Is the Internet destined to become a Tragedy of the Commons, where users’ compulsion to shame peers for objectionable behavior and the shamed’s defensive response — either shaming back or retreating from online discourse — destroys the Web’s sanctity as a vibrant public forum?

All stakeholders count on the Web to be an open, mostly civil place where users feel comfortable interacting. Even the shamers. Even the more disgraceful shamers are enforcing norms, even if politeness isn’t one of them. Like, from Daniel J. Solove’s “The Future of Reputation,” subway riders should clean up after their dog if it poops inside the train, diners should reward good service with a decent tip, lovers should be faithful to their significant others. If the shamers’ messages become too frequent, virulent or embellished, other users, whom they rely upon to enforce the norms they’re trying to protect, are going to start to tune out such communications, even actively avoid them. The Web will lose its power as a norms-enforcing vehicle.

One of my classmates made a similar point when discussing the perceived credibility of blogs, suggesting a decline in decorum sinks all ships.

“The more pure gossip we see popping up on the blogosphere, the less credible it becomes,” David Parsons wrote in a discussion board post. “This should come as a relief to anyone wanting to stay out of the Internet’s ‘public eye,’ as more gossip only discredits the value of blogs in general. … At some point, you have to trust in the user to make smart choices about what they are reading on the Web.”

Parsons’ argument could be broadened to describe the Web as a whole.

It’s one thing, then, to make smart choices when it comes to macro-communicators like blogs. They stay in one place and usually must establish a track record before gaining a readership. It’s another thing to make smart choices when it comes to micro-communicators like social network, message board, chat users and the like, some of whom we consider online “friends.”

Consider, for a second, your own circle of (real-world) friends. You gossip. Everyone does. Don’t worry, it can be healthy, Solove points out, by shaping individuals’ reputations without confrontation. When you gossip, you likely have some friends whose words you take more seriously than others. For some, it’s, “Well, she’ll say anything.” For others, it’s “Wow, she said that? It must be true.” You’re using their reputations to inform their judgments about other people’s reputations.

Because you’ve been able to personally observe the veracity of your friends’ comments over an extended amount of time, these shortcuts usually serve you well. Online, things are considerably murkier. Our relationships with online peers are more fleeting, people can hop from one Web community to another very quickly, and we often know little about them, assuming we know anything about them, including their identity. Often, even those we label online “friends” we know surprisingly little about. Moreover, identities can be easily falsified, either, as Solove mentions, by individuals themselves, or by others.

What can save the Internet’s, yes, constructive power as a norms-enforcing vehicle? Well, norms. In the near future, society will demand transparency. Those who don’t share their lives online will be looked down upon as outcasts, much like a hermit living in a cabin on the outskirts of town might be viewed today. Those who do participate but in an dishonest way will also be ostracized. Online peers may make Internet small talk with such users — much like people do with otherwise personable neighbors who clam up the second even basic biographical details are broached — but will shut them out from the real conversation.

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