On the morning of May 18, 2011, at a coffee shop in Manhattan, social media daredevil and not-yet-former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) rhapsodized about the perils of candor in a Web 2.0 world. While Weiner's snarky use of hashtags had been netting him thousands of followers on Twitter, he also knew his extreme tweeting had the potential to backfire on him. "I know the risk," he told a New York Times reporter. "With absolutely metaphysical certitude, I will say that I will offend somebody or make a mistake once in a while. I won't always be politically correct, and I'm sorry in advance." Pre-emptive apology duly issued, he added a note of prudence ("You've got to be cautious"), finished up the interview, and went on with his business.
Which, it turns out, included emailing a photo of his naked erect penis to Meagan Broussard, a Facebook friend with benefits, just a few hours later. That same day, an unidentified acquaintance of hers informed BigGovernment.com muckraker Andrew Breitbart that she had compromising photos of the House's most left-leaning member. For more than a week, Breitbart sat on this information—but then Weiner accidently, or at least unadvisedly, tweeted another illicit photo, publicly, to a 21-year-old woman in Seattle.
Weinergate erupted, complete with claims of hacking, tense denials of responsibility, tearful mea culpas, and, finally, resignation. Punctuating it all was a portfolio of increasingly revealing images of Weiner—first the underwear shot he could not say with certainty was him, then his fully certifiable nipples, then the X-rated shot he'd sent to Broussard, then a set of him primping and flexing in the congressional gym. His pecs were in pristine shape for a 46-year-old. His reputation was not.
No blue dresses were soiled in the course of Weinergate. No gay massage therapists were contracted for purely therapeutic purposes. It was a wholly virtual scandal, which, unfortunately for Weiner, means it is likely to be a stubbornly indelible one. Those photos aren't going anywhere. Nor are the email transcripts detailing Weiner's dirty talk with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. In the Internet age, even no-contact one-night stands last forever.
That our permanent records finally live up to their name is unsettling. Over a lifetime, even relatively pure souls generate piles of dirty laundry. In his 2007 book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, contemplates what may happen when information about our pasts—information, that is, that was "once scattered, forgettable, and localized"—becomes too comprehensive, too cumulative, too retrievable by anyone with a computer. "The more freedom people have to spread information online, the more likely that people's private secrets will be revealed in ways that can hinder their opportunities in the future," he writes.
In part, what worries Solove and other observers of the online world is how easily the Internet allows individuals to publish false and defamatory claims about others. "So far," Reputation.com co-founder Michael Fertik explains in his 2010 book Wild West 2.0, "U.S. courts have held that [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996] completely exempts websites from liability for the actions of their users—including defamation and other torts against private individuals."
But what may be most unnerving about the Web is not how it empowers malicious smear merchants but how it standardizes chronic self-disclosure through mechanisms as innocuous as Facebook "likes," and how it allows content aggregators to amass the tiny truths we disclose about ourselves in ways we can neither predict nor control. Imagine car insurers monitoring your tweetstream to see how often you use Foursquare to check-in at bars at least 30 miles from your apartment. Imagine dating sites assigning you a narcissism quotient based on how often you review hair salons and Pilates instructors on Yelp.com.
As indiscreetly as we live now, it is possible that in 2013 we may look back to 2011 as a golden era of privacy. Flickr, Facebook, and other social media sites today are filled with millions of photos that could prove embarrassing in certain contexts, but for the most part the people in those photos remain unidentified. That's changing fast. "When combined with facial recognition and the power of Google to find obscure information, the possibility of damage to reputation is obvious," Fertik writes. "Anyone photographed (accidentally or intentionally) near an adult bookstore could be identified by name and made subject to ridicule by his peers."
Fertik may be overstating this particular threat: Since amateur porn killed the adult video star, there aren't many adult bookstores left. Still, if you're the kind of person who believes the electric chair is an appropriate penalty for people who cut in line at the bagel shop, 21st-century justice may exceed even your wildest fantasies. Soon you'll be able to snap a photo of anyone whose public behavior rubs you the wrong way, determine their real identity, and let the Internet crowd-source their punishment. With even minor transgressions triggering public shaming campaigns, parking space theft will plummet and movie theaters will become quiet as cemeteries. But do we really want to inhabit this dystopian Eden of compulsory virtue?
If we are doomed to inhabit it, is there at least a way to obtain a little breathing room for our shortcomings, a little clemency for our missteps? Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, author of the 2009 book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age, proposes that planned obsolescence be applied to data: All your blog posts, tweets, and other digital artifacts could have a predetermined shelf life set by you. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain champions "reputation bankruptcy," which would allow people to compel companies collecting information about them to wipe their databases clean every 10 years or so.
While these solutions involve destroying data, creating more of the stuff appears to be a more practical approach, at least in the short term. In Wild West 2.0, Fertik argues that the best way to adapt to the increasingly panoptic Internet is to make sure you flood it with "content that makes you appear social, outgoing, and friendly—such as smiling photographs with friends or powerful people." According to Fertik, studies by researchers at Cornell University, AOL, and other institutions suggest that "the vast majority of users only look at the first three search results" when consulting Google and other search engines. The trick, then, is to create enough positive content about yourself, at enough different websites, to ensure that even those searching for dirt on you find this positive information first. In essence, it's search engine optimization applied to individuals.
Here Anthony Weiner proves instructive. While the congressman's penchant for the spotlight may have led to his downfall, it has also served him well. The Internet may contain a dozen or so embarrassingly revealing photos of Weiner, but it's filled with far more shots of him looking professional and assured. Go to Google.com, type in "Anthony Weiner," and click on the "Images" option. Even with "Safe Search Off," what you'll see first is Weiner posing in front of the Capitol building, Weiner posing in front of a flag, Weiner posing with his wife, Weiner looking composed, confident, clothed.
Scroll down a ways, and eventually you'll see Weiner's nipples. Scroll down some more and there's his underwear. Type in something a little more specific— "Anthony Weiner nude" or "Anthony Weiner scandal"—and the results are less forgiving. Still, it's only been a few months and already the scandal does not completely define him. Whether this is a result of recent proactive reputation management techniques or a fortuitous effect of two decades' worth of professional image crafting, it should give hope to us all. The Web of the future may not be as oppressive as advertised. As long as we're willing to saturate the Internet with carefully choreographed self-spam, our ability to trade racy pix with unreliable strangers should endure.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.