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Jul. 26 2010 - 12:05 pm | 1,153 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

The Beauty of Never Forgetting

This weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on cyberspace’s “first great existential crisis.” Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen tore a page out of of Dan Solove’s book and wrote about reputation in the digital age: The Web Means the End of Forgetting.

In fact, it felt like he ripped quite a few pages from Solove’s 2007 book, “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.” Rosen’s message was a condensed version of that book — essentially, that it’s scary that it can be so difficult to control the information disseminated about ourselves online, and that we as a society need to come up with ways to protect people. That would be protection from the reputation ruining that comes from someone tagging you in a nasty blog post and having it turn up as the first result in a Google search of your name, but also protecting people from themselves in this age of indiscreet Facebooking and Tweetaholicism.

The piece went online early last week, and many people sent it my way. When I opened it and it started with the “drunken pirate” anecdote, I closed my browser and decided to wait until the magazine came to my house on Saturday. I decided that if the article was using an anecdote from four years ago as its hook, it could wait a few days to be read.

I enjoyed the piece, but in many ways, it felt as dated as that lead.

Most people know the story of Stacy Snyder, a Pennsylvania woman who was kicked out of teaching training due to a drunken photo on Facebook in which she was dressed as pirate. The world of digital living is changing rapidly, and that particular story feels old to me. One big change since the mid-aughts is that being seen in drunken photos is becoming more acceptable. Rosen mentions this briefly at the end of his piece through an interview with a psychology professor at the University of Texas:

[Samuel] Gosling is optimistic about the implications of his study for the possibility of digital forgiveness. He acknowledged that social technologies are forcing us to merge identities that used to be separate — we can no longer have segmented selves like “a home or family self, a friend self, a leisure self, a work self.” But although he told Facebook, “I have to find a way to reconcile my professor self with my having-a-few-drinks self,” he also suggested that as all of us have to merge our public and private identities, photos showing us having a few drinks on Facebook will no longer seem so scandalous. “You see your accountant going out on weekends and attending clown conventions, that no longer makes you think that he’s not a good accountant. We’re coming to terms and reconciling with that merging of identities.”

In today’s world, teachers do have a few drinking photos on their Facebook page, and they probably won’t get fired over them. That initial backlash against seeing people’s non-professional sides is fading.

Rosen reaffirmed something else for me in his piece — the beauty of having access to all of this information about people as a way of effectively judging them. Rather than having to work with and get to know people over time, we really can just look at their Facebook profile for a rather accurate measure of how we present ourselves offline.

In other words, you are who you are online:

Samuel Gosling, the University of Texas, Austin, psychology professor who conducted the study, told the Facebook blog, “We found that judgments of people based on nothing but their Facebook profiles correlate pretty strongly with our measure of what that person is really like, and that measure consists of both how the profile owner sees him or herself and how that profile owner’s friends see the profile owner.”

By comparing the online profiles of college-aged people in the United States and Germany with their actual personalities and their idealized personalities, or how they wanted to see themselves, Gosling found that the online profiles conveyed “rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren’t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.” (Personality impressions based on the online profiles were most accurate for extroverted people and least accurate for neurotic people, who cling tenaciously to an idealized self-image.)

Rosen laments the accumulation of information about us online and our inability to escape it. Reading that makes me think of what it must have been like when cars became ubiquitous and lovers of horse-drawn carriages lamented this new mechanization of traveling. We live in a faster world with greater access to information, and greater means to control it in some ways.

The publishing platform of the Web is open to us all. Before, if you were written about in a news article (*Ahem*), that piece determined your reputation and how you were perceived and you really had no means to weigh in on it yourself. Now, you can respond to that which is inaccurate in cyberspace. In fact, there are professional services devoted to controlling your Google search results — Rosen namechecks ReputationDefender, one of the most successful of these.

I realize I have a unique perspective on this, being a professional online writer. I’m constantly spinning my name out into the Web and have a very public presence because of the nature of my job. But society is moving in a direction where we will all have online presences of some sort. And studies show that young people are getting good at managing that presence. See Pew’s recent study on this:

More than half (57%) of adult internet users say they have used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online, up from 47% who did so in 2006. Young adults, far from being indifferent about their digital footprints, are the most active online reputation managers in several dimensions. For example, more than two-thirds (71%) of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online.

Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young. While some internet users are careful to project themselves online in a way that suits specific audiences, other internet users embrace an open approach to sharing information about themselves and do not take steps to restrict what they share.

Rosen notes that we don’t have perfect control over how we’re viewed. But I would say that in fact, we never have had that complete control. And I see great value in our ability to gather more information about one another, and to share more information about ourselves. I’m not alone:

“Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one’s identity online,” said Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist and lead author of the report, “Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go–changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online.”

When compared with older users, young adults are more likely to restrict what they share and whom they share it with. “Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities,” said Madden.

via Reputation Management and Social Media | Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

One solution that Rosen presents is destroying data: setting expiration dates on pieces of information so that it disappears. I may be an online radical, but that sounded to me like a digital equivalent of Fahrenheit 451 — “let’s set things afire to maintain control.”

My reaction to the piece echoed that of my friend and colleague, David Lat, with whom I often meld minds. He wrote (on both Facebook and Twitter, of course), “David Lat doesn’t HATE privacy, but he does think (1) it’s overrated and (2) all the hand-wringing over the erosion of privacy is simply ANNOYING (just shut up and deal already).”

His advice (and mine): “(1) Live your life as publicly as possible, and (2) teach yourself to care less about your reputation.”

In that, there is another nugget: care less about the reputations of others as presented online. If you see a drunken photo of someone, you don’t have to fire them over it.


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  1. collapse expand

    “(Personality impressions based on the online profiles were most accurate for extroverted people and least accurate for neurotic people, who cling tenaciously to an idealized self-image.)”
    Or: employers most concerned with online screening are more likely to hire the neurotic. You can see that as self-perpetuating, but it remains to be seen whether “neurotic” people are more or less productive overall. That would likely tip the balance between increasing public or private lives.

  2. collapse expand

    That advice at the end goes down rough for old-timers like me. It isn’t hard to not worry about my reputation, but inviting comment sure doesn’t come naturally.

  3. collapse expand

    There is a gap, a period of time in recent history where people expected some sense of privacy even when putting information online. That was certainly in the past 2 – 5 years. Stacy Snyder was caught in that gap with her ‘drunken pirate’ photo on Facebook.
    That’s clearly not the case today; we all assume public is the default state. In fact, there is a single word that demonstrates the vaporization of privacy once and for all, at least in media circles: Journolist.

    Today, Deep Throat would’ve been exposed on Foursquare and Twitter before Woodward and Bernstein drove out of the parking garage.

  4. collapse expand

    I took particular issue with Rosen’s use of stats to depict 18-29 year olds as more protective of their privacy than older Internet users. Rather, Millennials have grown up with and driven the social media culture. In our embracing of a more public life, we are also molding this new order’s privacy norms. The statistic showing that far fewer older users are as protective of their reputation and privacy is not because they are more open; it’s because they are less familiar with the world we very much belong to, if not own and direct.

  5. collapse expand

    Nice piece Kash,

    The analogy of the horse-drawn carriage is perfect.

    We still refer to a cars speed potential in increments of “horsepower” though.

  6. collapse expand

    Your last comments bring to mind Joan Didion paraphrasing Margaret Mitchell/ Rhett Butler, though maybe with a more cynical slant; you must be a person of courage, Kashmir.

  7. collapse expand

    Our only hope is if Bill McKibben has understated the changes to planet Eaarth (and I really don’t know if I’m kidding or not).

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    I am a writer, reporter, editor and blogger. I'm an editor at Above The Law, where I blog about lawyers, judges, law firms and the legal industry. Here at True/Slant, I write about our changing notions of privacy.

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