In an increasingly inter-connected and digital society, challenges to privacy and reputation are frequent. Even before social media put everyone at constant pressure to “overshare,” when people’s very personal details were not always a quick Google search away, privacy was still under threat. A person’s visibility and public representations are often judged and demanded for credibility and honesty evaluations performed by employers, potential partners, members of the community, and even complete strangers. Giving up privacy in favor of radical openness may be the way some reality stars have attained their celebrity, but for many people this feels invasive and like a violation of security.
In a broader sense, people’s individual privacy settings in terms of what they wish to share or disclose, how, and to whom, have a direct bearing on reputation. Cultural practices around privacy and information sharing can give rise to serious reputational risk that impacts individuals and communities and frays the social fabric in which transparency is desirable or even possible. These norms and ethical expectations are intensified in the digital age, where an individual’s personal information can never truly be deleted or taken back once it is made public.The price of shame (Monica Lewinsky) – Monica Lewinsky refers to herself as “Patient Zero” of a particular brand of intense reputational risk. In a time before online call-out culture, comment threads, and bullying or judging of strangers was enabled by wide-spread internet access and social media platforms, Lewinsky became famous all over the world for a personal episode which became part of political and cultural history. Her talk describes a “culture of humiliation,” where damage to reputation escalates by the groupthink and competing interests that can completely demolish a person’s reputation in judgment of their once private information and acts. This cultural affinity for public shaming, enabled by digitalization and lower privacy thresholds, can do deep and lasting damage to an individual’s identity and status, causing extreme reputational risk from original disclosures that were thought to be no big deal or even made in confidence.
- Why privacy matters (Glenn Greenwald) – Conventional wisdom once may have been that an innocent, good person has nothing to hide – but this increasingly seems to be an unfair preconception. Individuals should not be expected to submit to extreme surveillance with some premise of their own integrity as the only shield to inspection and use of their personal data. As discussed in this post about the movie The Circle, the idea that having no known wrongdoing to hide means that everything should be public is contrary to privacy interests. People who do nothing wrong are still entitled to have a personal sphere in which governments and other individuals do not intervene and interfere. As in The Circle, some secrets may indeed be lies, but forced transparency diminishes liberty to an extent that should not be acceptable in an ethical society.
- Interconnected: Your legacy and your reputation (Jenny Brown) – Legacy is a powerful argument for personal integrity and establishing, and sticking to, an individual moral code. People are more likely to engage in ethical behavior if they feel that they will be remembered positively for it. Conversely, if convinced that misconduct will be noticed and leave a lasting negative impression, individuals will make an effort to avoid it in order to not suffer those reputational consequences. A conscious decision-making process that acknowledges that even private choices have a public impact on one’s legacy will give rise to intentional, values-based decision-making and reputation management.
- Digital footprints (Michelle Clark) – One of the challenges of today’s digital society is to convincingly drive home the lesson that people leave behind permanent digital footprints. There are powerful and lasting consequences for everything done or disclosed in public now, and every post, comment, like, and search online or offline action that can be connected to or shared on the internet, can affect a person’s future indelibly. Michelle Clark suggests that everyone’s actions online create a “social map” which records all of their actions and graphs from person to person to accumulate a visible history of everyone’s lives and interests. People must navigate this “map” responsibly and consciously, understanding that communicating this information can have both good and bad impacts and interpretations on reputation and future outcomes.
- How one tweet can ruin your life (Jon Ronson) – Jon Ronson is a journalist who both embraces the internet as a venue for self-expression and social connection as well as regards it warily as the source of problematic groupthink and a call-out culture that can have devastating, outsized impact on an individual’s life due to one ill-considered post or share. Crowd mentality can be intense on the internet and can spill over quickly into a person’s offline life, affecting work, relationships, and even physical safety. The remote interaction that nevertheless feels close and intimate that is typical on the internet causes people to dehumanize each other, which awakens a destructive and irresponsible instinct.
As long-held ideas about the role of the individual and the expectations of communities are redefined by the extension of the digital world into everyday life, previously-held beliefs about privacy and reputation must be re-evaluated. It is logical that some boundaries will blur or be diminished, as transparency, sharing, and openness are enabled and valued. However, there are some traditional ideas about these concepts which should not just be discarded carelessly. Risks to reputation and security that are posed by diminished privacy expectations and practices are still very real, and must be actively managed against accordingly.