In “Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less,” Solove provides some suggestions on maintaining privacy in blogs while also acknowledging the difficulty of doing so in the netted world. After discussing socio-psychological and ethical conundrums surrounding gossip, Solove advises users on paying attention to the purpose, context, audience, and appropriateness of gossip—“the who, what, and why of it” (74). Although important, suggestions like this merit reconsideration.
First, the idea of audience has remained historically elusive. Who constitutes an audience? “The writer’s audience is always a fiction,” as Walter J. Ong reminds us. Besides, there exist competing, overlapping, and shifting interests, norms, and values regarding what and how much information is “good” or “private” or “public” within a community, let alone outside it. “Privacy norms vary across and within social groups,” observes Helen Nissenbaum (129). Given this difficulty in identifying what constitutes privacy norms and expectations about gossip, Solove’s suggestion appears to be a mere moralizer.
As privacy is context-specific and context-relative, it is crucial to understand the “full” context of gossips before passing a judgment about others, Solove suggests. Knowing the full context means knowing not just individual constituents of a rhetoric such as its specific time and socio-cultural and physiological underpinnings, but a complex of these informing the rhetoric (Blitzer). Is total re-contextualization possible? Solove himself avers, “the Internet strips away (the context in which gossip happens)” (74). Also, as Nissenbaum argues, “[t]he framework of contextual integrity postulates a multiplicity of social contexts, each with a distinctive set of rules governing information flow” (41). To complicate the matter, people’s motivations (“the why”) shift constantly.
Third, Solove’s moralizing conclusion contradicts with his observation about the difficulty in maintaining privacy in the social media. With the help of “super nodes” and hyperlinks, one “dramatic moment” or “tipping point” is enough to spread information if it’s sticky or contagious enough (Solove 60-61). Thus, being careful on the part of community members can barely provide protection. Additionally, perhaps to suggest that it doesn’t help to only say “we don’t have control; we need to maximize the chance by learning small important tips,” Solove doesn’t dwell much on the ultimate power those who own the system wield on influencing and shaping individuals’ privacy as it fits their needs. While sounding useful, the effectiveness of Solove’s suggestions is marred precisely by the troubling areas of gossip—“the who, what, and why of it.”
Blitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1998): 1-14. Print.
Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books, 2010. 129-157. Print.
Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. 2nd ed. NCTE, 2003. 55-76. Print.
Solove, Daniel J. The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. 50-75. Print.
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