Do Social Networks Make Us Better People?

What does it mean to have our lives watched by an invited guest who never forgets anything he sees? Mr. Internet comes in many guises – Count Facebook, Mssr Twitter, Professor LinkedIn, Herr Amazon – but essentially he’s doing the same thing every time: recording everything we do and noting every word we think on screen. Increasingly, his multiple personas are collapsing into one identity, which means that we are no longer a patchwork of disconnected footprints across the Web. Each of us is a collage that stands as one painting in the hallway of all the portraits of our fellow beings on the Internet. In this Digital Museum, our collage is part of a permanent exhibition.

Once it was only celebrities who had the problem of never being able to escape their past. No matter how well Jennifer Aniston does as an actress, she’ll always also be the woman that Brad Pitt left for Angelina Jolie. Now we non-celebrities have the same issue. A friend recently complained that even though she has come far in her life, Google still serves up her drunken arrest when she was a teenager whenever her name is searched. If our friend had known  that one day her night of drunkenness was going to affect her job opportunities and her dating prospects, she might not have had that fifth vodka tonic. The issues she’s faced in getting her employers to trust her would make anyone turn into a teetotaler.

Does the fear of a tarnished reputation make us behave better? The implications of 24-7 surveillance by the Internet was recently discussed at length in Jeffrey Rosen’s excellent essay “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” in the New York Times. As a law professor, Rosen is particularly concerned about people’s reputation and privacy (he is currently writing a book on Louis Brandeis), who is the father of the “right to privacy” law in the United States). People want to control their online reputation, but when you live in public, that is neither easy nor always possible. Take Facebook: if you don’t like a picture of yourself taken at a bar, you just remove the tag on the photograph. With emerging facial recognition software (like, algorithms may one day soon automatically recognize and tag you in a photograph. The Internet could be populated with images of you as varied as you delightfully blowing the candles on your birthday cake, to your frowning like a grump when you pass a bench where a happy couple is wildly kissing. It seems that the only way to protect your reputation is to be on your best behavior all the time, even during an idle walk in the park (who knows if someone clicks a photograph of a bird and catches you being a grump).

If you did indulge in some folly in your youth, Michael Fertik created ReputationDefender to help create a more positive image online. Rosen writes, “In the Web 3.0 world, Fertik predicts, people will be rated, assessed and scored based not on their creditworthiness but on their trustworthiness as good parents, good dates, good employees, good baby sitters or good insurance risks.” Jonathan Zittrain, professor of cyber-law at Harvard Law School, has put forward the idea of ‘reputation bankruptcy’ which would allow people (as a last resort) to erase all their online reputation just as filing financial bankruptcy allows them to eliminate all their debt.

Today, regulations are far behind in creating the legal framework to protect the privacy of those who spend much their time online. It’s understandably a hairy issue: after all, we give the Internet the right to our personal information, regaling it with news of promotions, new babies, books we like and places we visit.  For now the best course given the dangers of online watchfulness may just be to take a page from Hobbes and become a better person.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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