Obsessive about Real Identity?

Reputation in the digital world

Let’s bring up the old cliché of the Internet fans (of which I’m naturally one!): it’s all about interconnecting people, independently on where they are, or what their gender, age, or ethics are. I will not waste time looking up the emergence of social groupings in the digital world; visionaries like Nicholas Negroponte, for instance, have sold more bestseller books than ever on this subject. Papers and thesis pile up on every university in the world talking about this. The dawn of the Internet broke “geography” as the limiting factor in how communities are built, but it brought our gregarious trends to the digital world where people forge connections without the need to be in physical presence of each other all the time.

If you have been reading this article with attention, you might have noticed that I left out one example of relationships — personal, intimate relationships. These are hard to fit into the model, but just for one reason: while many of us immediately rely intimacy to physical contact, this is by no means necessary. Intimacy is usually defined as a set of circumstances that allow people to share common secrets (whatever they are; don’t read too much in the word “secret”, for some people certain knowledge might seem very trivial and even banal to many, but not for themselves) which forge a very strong bond between them. In human relationships, we tend to see “close friends” and “partners” or spouses as sharing this bond. When the bond involves sexual contact, we expect physical presence. But, again, a large percentage of people don’t see things in this way, which is merely a conservative, traditionalist definition which simply might not apply any longer. While I’d be hard pressed to find examples of long-lasting intimate bonds (over several decades, not merely days or even months) that will even include sexual fulfilment without physical presence, I still think that these are not a significant percentage of the overall world-wide population.

On the other hand, not all intimate connections require sexual fulfilment 🙂 — at least when we define intimacy as “bonds arising from mutually sharing common secrets”. For those, as we can imagine, intimacy requires, once more, the establishment of reputation, and the identification/validation of that same reputation. Put into other words, you trust someone with your innermost secrets if they have an ethical behaviour that is consistent with your own (i.e. both share a common set of rules applying to your own social group), and the group endows that someone with a good reputation.

I have deliberately kept the notion on how to validate that reputation vague. In the real world, we would simply talk to that person, and our evaluation would mostly fall on both internal behaviour (expressed through words) and external behaviour (actions according to the established norms for the group), consolidated by using the attributed reputation by the group (with which we would presumably have some sort of contact). However, the digital world is not much different, except for the determination of the external behaviour, which can be inferred but probably not directly perceived.

Taking an extreme example, let’s suppose that someone adheres to an ethical code of conduct that forbids them to mistreat animals, and is interested in developing an intimate relationship with someone they just met. It’s conceivable that in the real world you would be watching what your date is doing. Does he kick cats and dogs on the street? Does he spontaneously buy bread to feed birds in the park? If you can observe those actions directly, you can feel confident that this person does, indeed, share the same norms of your group, and thus validate his reputation as someone friendly to animals.

In the digital world, however, this proof cannot be obtained directly. Someone might be chatting (or talking on the phone) on how much they love animals, while kicking the dog under the table. If distance (or other physical conditions) might prevent a physical validation of actions, how can you be sure this people is not simply lying?

But like the real world, direct validation is just half the story: reputation, which also points to identity, as we have seen before, is also part of the process. Even in real life, your new boyfriend might show tenderness and care towards animals, but kick his mother’s cat when at home. How do you know? In real life, you’d ask the mother directly (or potentially get in touch with your boyfriend’s friends). This is just dealing with reputation. If many individuals part of the same social group confirm someone’s reputation, your own validation might be less important. Even if you never see your boyfriend actively petting an animal or treating them well, you will accept the social group’s perceived reputation as part of your boyfriend’s identity. Sometimes this can be overwhelming, to the sense that the boyfriend might never reveal their affinity with animals — and thus, ordinarily, you would never directly perceive that trait of his personality — but his reputation as an animal lover would still be transmitted through the network of connections of the social group. Your boyfriend’s identity would still be perceived as having a loving relationship towards animals even if he never talks about it (because he might be shy… or embarrassed to talk about it!) and never physically performs an action of empathy towards animals in your presence.

The digital world pushes the focus on reputation, and less on actions, since actions will be (mostly) intangible. You might never be able to see your new online boyfriend petting an animal. But you might have instant and immediate access to your boyfriend’s network of social connections and ask this network about his stance towards animals. Indeed, the mere fact that our digital lives become more and more complex, with more and more information voluntarily published by our own selves on all sorts of social networking websites, facilitates this reputation-gathering: at a glance, you can see to which groups someone belongs, and often be able to contact all the members of those groups. If someone has a tag of “animal lover” on their profiles, and that is a blatant lie, it’s sure to attract comments from angry members of the social group which will very vocally deny the claim. In a sense, since digital communication is so much faster, so much more information-rich, so much more widely encompassing, it can build up reputation — good or bad — very quickly, and disseminate it quickly and effortlessly across the digital channels.

Some of you might remember having passed along chain letters to see how long it would take until they reached you again. When using postal mail, this might have taken years; using Internet email, it might be insanely quick. This is how information about reputation is also quickly spread: through word-by-mouth. Unlike what happens outside the digital world, where word-by-mouth is not very fast and has a limited range, word-by-mouth on the Internet can be very quick and far-reaching — dozens of thousands of people might be spreading a meme about an individual’s reputation in a matter of seconds, using lots of different techniques (email, Twitter, Facebook, IRC, IMs on SL group chat…). On the digital world, the meta-beliefs around reputation go around very, very quickly.

However, so do false beliefs. And here is usually the catch when we think about online, digital transmission of reputation. Rumours are spread very quickly, but even more so on the digital world. Thus, a lie also runs much faster. Worse than that, the feeling that you’re pretty much immune to direct, physical retribution if you spread lies on the Internet, traditionally, because of this, we assume that lies are widespread on the Internet far more than on the real world.

Well, to a degree this is true. But again we are following a fallacy: the notion that people on the Internet lie more than outside it. The astonishing result of the authors of Freakonomics is that the number of people lying is astonishingly low even when there are no incentives to be honest (or a lack of sufficient deterrents on liars). This goes a bit against our (biased) feeling that most people are dishonest, it’s just the law that “keeps them straight” because of the ability to physically enforce this very same laws.

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