Reputation and Identity:


I just want you to live up to the image of you that I create…


Research has shown that adults, young adults and children are or may be subject to repercussions stemming from personal information available about them online.    When people report experiencing negative repercussions from information posted online, they can mean many things, both immediate and long-term.

Information posted online can be anything – status reports, pictures, videos, comments on a Facebook wall, group memberships, sites or products that have been “liked”, even something as simple as an inside joke that gets misinterpreted by someone looking at it from outside.  And no matter how unobjectionable it may seem to the poster, just as you have no control over what someone else may post  (there are, of course, privacy controls that will allow someone to exercise some control over information about them, whether it is what can be posted on their wall/timeline or the necessity of approving posts for the timeline before they are published, but no control provides an absolute guarantee that someone else won’t post something on their own timelines that identifies or appears to identify you)  you also have no control over how someone else may interpret information and what inferences they may draw from it.  

The problem is in how people respond to things they perceive negatively.  Negative repercussions stemming from information or based on inferences drawn from that information and its availability may be fairly direct, for instance, a parent finding out about a planned party or a teacher finding out the actual activities of a “sick” student. 

Increasingly, however, the negative repercussions have long-term and more dispersed resonance.  They become not just an isolated reaction to one piece of information, but rather get incorporated into an assessment of the individual overall. Thus, when people react negatively to some piece of information they see or hear, that negative perception is incorporated into the image that person has of you.  It is also likely to be conveyed to others – perhaps not the information or incident itself but certainly the negative impression – which as it is shared, becomes part of the perception about you, not just on the part of one person but on the part of those s/he interacts with and shares information and impressions with.

The problem is only compounded when, instead of a human being making these assessments they are the result of an algorithm.

When others use information about an individual as a basis for decision making, they are extrapolating from that information in order to form an opinion or judgement of the individual, or (in the case where the individuals are already known to each other) to inform or bolster an opinion or judgement of the individual.  This is not an unknown phenomenon, but rather one with which we are intimately familiar under the name “reputation”. 

As our society becomes increasingly dispersed – both geographically and spatially (moving to online spaces) – people are increasingly dealing with those they do not know or do not know well.  In order to facilitate those dealings and encourage comfort with ecommerce and other social, economic and political interactions, that uncertainty between strangers must be addressed. 

Increasingly, reputation has become a tool used to bridge that gap. Reputation is, after all, a record of interactions with an individual and impressions gleaned from those interactions.  Thus, when contemplating dealing with an unknown person or entity, their reputation may be consulted in order to (help) determine whether or not to enter into the transaction. 

Although “transaction” carries with it the flavour of business (and reputation is certainly being used in commercial circumstances), there are many exchanges that take place outside of commerce an reputation is or can be instrumental in all of them.  Just as some online commerce sites are attaching feedback ratings to users, so too are formal and informal feedback consulted when it comes to permitting access to spaces, to services, and to information in certain circumstances.

It is for this reason that reputation is an issue that must be examined.  Although reputation has always fulfilled this gatekeeper function locally, it is now expanding; more people are interacting with each other, meaning there is more, and dispersed, input into the derivation of reputation and that reputation is in turn being consulted more often and used to make decisions in an increasing number of areas.

Increasingly, however, the negative repercussions have long-term and more dispersed resonance. They become not just an isolated reaction to one piece of information, but rather get incorporated into an assessment of the individual overall.