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Response: Sex scandals as cautionary tales for bloggers

In his chapter, “Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less,” Daniel Solove addresses the problem of gossip blogging in the quick-and-easy information sharing age of the internet. Before the internet, the consequences of gossip were, if still potentially devastating, at least limited to certain social groups or geographical locations. The victim of harmful gossip has the ability move to another social group where the information has not yet been shared. Now, with the ability to link to information quickly and to share it to a wide and varied audience, gossip on the internet can be spread across any number of social circles, archived, and dug up again and again.

However, the examples that Solove uses to illustrate the potential dangers of internet gossip fail to explore the cultural forces — such as sexism — that inform how we decide when information becomes dangerous gossip. In Solove’s overview of the Washingtonienne, the woman who blogged about her Capitol Hill sex life, he devotes several paragraphs to a summary of her sexual activity (51-52). The details seem to be relevant: they demonstrate clearly how much information the Washingtonienne was willing to share. However, reading through Wonkette’s archive of the Washingtonienne’s blog, it becomes apparent that Solove chose not to highlight the fact that the Washingtonienne also blogged regularly about more mundane activities (such as her love for Martha Stewart). Solove does not explain why he feels that a sex scandal is the best example to introduce his chapter, nor does he examine why it is necessary for us to know exactly how much (and what kind of) sex the Washingtonienne was having. If the problem is that she revealed private information about Robert, the Capitol hill employee she was sleeping with, then Solove should have spent more than one paragraph on the consequences he suffered. Solove’s focus on the woman who chose to publicize her own life, rather than the man whose private life was made public without his consent, obfuscates his argument about the dangers of gossip.

Solove’s exploration of the dangers of internet-enabled gossip is missing a closer examination of the political contexts his examples operate in. If it is important to keep context in mind when we make judgments about people, as Solove argues in his conclusion, then it is equally important to engage with social and political contexts when we judge the value (or danger) of information on the internet. The Washingtonienne may have crossed over into gossip by revealing another person’s private acts, but she did so within the context of a culture where men regularly reveal women’s private acts. As the Washingtonienne explains it, “when you work on the Hill you find out the guy you’ve been sleeping with has told everyone in your office about it” (54). It is not possible to assess the social consequences of her blog without an exploration of the gendered context of her life on Capitol Hill, and Solove’s argument suffers because of this lack.

Solove, Daniel J. “Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less.” The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and  Privacy on the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007. 50–75. Print. (link to abstract)

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