7.1.1 From “I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation” to reputation
It is not necessarily compulsory to start this chapter with a story about the role of reputation in popular culture. However, I let myself be seduced by recent news, and I wrote a preliminary draft about Taylor Swift’s on-going “Reputation” tours. As you may know from the introduction of this book, Natalie Thompson is my copy-editor, and she enthusiastically comments when she disagrees with me. In reading my draft, she wrote: “I think in it’s current formulation it is a bit awkward, but there might be a way to restructure it.” Here is the result:
The importance of reputation in popular culture has been vastly expanded by the
Internet and our ability to broadcast information about our lives on social media platforms to both friends and strangers. We carefully curate the best possible images of ourselves, but we may also be subject to scrutiny and cannot control what others say about us, which may become more important than what we say about ourselves.
The recent popularity of Taylor Swift’s studio album Reputation is a perfect microcosmof both the importance and uncontrollability of our reputations in a digital age. Born out of a spat between the pop star and rapper Kanye West, Reputation addresses the constant negativity that Swift faced from individuals on-line and the ensuing damage to her reputation and attempts to demonstrate that reputations can be falsified and misleading. With lines like, “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me” and “Ooh, you and me, we got big reputations, and you heard about me. Ooh, I got some big enemies (yeah),” Swift speaks to the distinction between public and private personas that everyone navigates on a daily basis. While Swift’s reputation
as an artist defines her celebrity and is, as a result, fundamentally distinct from the reputations of most individuals, her desire to call attention to the ways in which reputations can be misleading or manipulated, especially on-line, provides a telling example of the difficulties of navigating the subjectivity/objectivity dilemma that we have repeatedly encountered in this text. Swift has also garnered attention in political headlines as the Congressional midterms approach with stories like: Conservatives are turning on Taylor Swift after she endorsed Democrats, and here is a quantified effect: Trump “likes Taylor Swift 25% less” after political post.
When I asked my youngster family friend and former coworker, Judit Szente (who just got a PhD in Climate and Space Science at University of Michigan) about the role of the word “reputation” in these songs, she wrote me back that she prefers Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation from 1981:
I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation
You’re living in the past it’s a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s
What I’m gonna do … 149
While I was somewhat surprised that the concept or reputation plays such an important role in the rock music, it is less surprising that Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher working in Paris, raises and answers the questions: What does it mean to have a good reputation? What do we lose when we lose a reputation?150. Our character and our actions shape our reputation, and reputation is a form of currency. Our reputation determines whether or not other people invest in us, buy from us, or give us an award.
Who determines our reputation?
How many friends do you have? Despite what Facebook might suggest, we cannot have a thousand friends. We cannot even have a thousand close acquaintances. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has estimated the number of persons with whom we can form stable social relationship: 150, which more precisely means that between hundred and two hundred. When I began my aboutranking.com and searched my email inbox to decide whom I could easily ask to follow my website, I was shocked. The number was 149 (well, only sixty of them kindly pushed the follow button). They are the people who know some of my characteristic features and my actions, so my reputation is based on their perception of my activities. But in a broader sense, my reputation is the collective opinion of everybody else, except myself. As most people know, it takes time to build a reputation. We all know that a single moment is sufficient to destroy a good reputation. As a quote attributed to Warren Buffett says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Unfortunately, even malicious gossip is sufficient to smash a reputation. Having a good reputation among friends might help, as they may defend you even without your knowing.
The traditional mechanism for constructing a reputation is hierarchical. First, your reputation emerges in the layer of people closest to you, so among your friends, and propagates through layers of more distant acquaintances to the friends of your friends of your friends, etc. Modern media have produced other mechanisms and enabled the emergence of overnight popularity. One of my recent favorite examples of overnight popularity is Baddie Winkle, a grandma who conquered the hearts of the Internet when her great-granddaughter posted her photo on Instagram. She now has millions of followers.151
Of course, being an overnight sensation does not necessarily imply (positive) reputation. Reputation is social information about the value of a person and their activities. To conduct business, for example, people rely on having a good reputation to communicate their trustworthiness to their clients. It is not enough to be honest; you must also be seen as honest in the eyes of the others. (I don’t want to adopt the cynical perspective by suggesting that because you need to be seen as honest, it is not necessary to be honest).