I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently, and even more so since Simon Finch sent me a link to his excellent article, Privacy is gone, live with it. In the article, Simon talks about managing his digital identity, not so much for self-promotion, but for self-preservation. His view is that if you don’t take charge of your digital identity, it will become defined by what others are saying about you.
Very true. When I attended a talk a few years ago by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, I suggested to him that a better way of trying to protect your online identity was to be very prolific online. He was sceptical, but I don’t see a viable alternative.
Simon also refers to an article by Dean Shareski called ‘The Mixed Messages of Digital Citizenship’. He and Dean believe that for people to post only positive things about themselves online leads to a very one-sided picture. Perhaps, they seem to be saying, we should also post things that are show our foibles and weaknesses too, at least to an extent.
I don’t post everything but certainly share much more than most people. Lots of it is upbeat, positive stuff and some of it is not so positive and much of it is mundane “sandwich eating”, “golf watching” kind of stuff. That’s intentional and it’s my way of trying to show who I am, even my foibles. My job involves building connections with many people that I may only see occasionally and so I want them to feel like they know me, for better or worse.
I’d like to share some thoughts of my own on these issues.
Should we share our vulnerability?
I think we need to be very careful about what we do, and what we advocate. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear of a teenager committing suicide because of negative comments online. Whether we like it or not, we act as role models for young people. We may be able to withstand all the barbs, but that is because we have built up a reserve of self-esteem, and a large enough group of people giving us positive reinforcement. And I stress the word “may”: have a look at the references in Web 2.0 For Rookies: Commenting to find out (if you didn’t already know) that although we can decide not to “feed the trolls”, their comments may upset us just the same.
And it’s not just us: I heard an actor once say that he remembers every bad review. And I heard a famous poet once say that he was always scared to read reviews, in case they were negative. These people were at the top of their game, yet still felt very vulnerable and sensitive and upset about negative comments about their work or, even worse, them.
So if you post something which could be perceived as a weakness, you have to be very careful indeed, not just for self-preservation, but to avoid signalling to any young people whom you influence that doing so is completely OK. It may not be.
Whether it is OK or not depends not only on what you say, but the context. For example, say you post “felt a right idiot when my presentation didn’t appear on the screen, but solved the problem by connecting the projector to laptop”. Most people would be able to identify with that sort of thing. There’s even a “law” for it:
It works better if you plug it in. If it still doesn't work, switch it on.
(See 21 rules for computer users for more rules”.)
But that’s rather different from posting “I don’t know how to connect a laptop to a projector.” I don’t think that example is quite right, but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at.
We talk a lot about e-safety, but I do believe that a neglected aspect (or at least one I don’t see explicitly referred to very often) is helping young people to take charge of their online identity for the purpose of self-preservation. Usually young people are advised to be careful about what they post in terms of potentially self-damaging comments or photos. What I don’t see them advised to do is (a) be prolific online, much as Simon is, and (b) to not post any self-deprecatory remarks that other people could take out of context and use as a stick to beat you with! And, of course, how to be robust enough if you do find yourself on the receiving end of nasty comments or worse.
Should we post trivia?
It may be that posting mundane stuff shows that we are ordinary human beings after all, but I really do think, again, it’s a matter of what, and in what context. I have seen posts along the lines of “About to eat a cheese sandwich”; “About t do my shopping”, and they just irritate me. On the other hand, Facebook updates by Simon and others, like Bev Evans, are always interesting, and often amusing. Bev, for example, sometimes writes about the people she meets in her supermarket, and both she and Simon upload photos of the meal they've just cooked, or the ingredients that are about to be cooked. All of that may be mundane in a sense, but it’s a lot more interesting than “Eating my lunch”.
Should we post only positive things?
For me, when people continually post things like “am inundated with new clients; business is going fantastically”; “having a wonderful time ”, I always think of Stephen Potter’s concept of “the petrification of the implied opposite”. Or, as Shakespeare put it, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. I am probably judging by my own standards, but I don’t have time to tell the world when business is going well (much less the inclination), because I am too busy working. And when I am having dinner with friends, for example, I want to give them my undivided attention.
But I think the problem I have is that I simply don’t understand why anyone would want to share their successes and happy moments (or failures and sad moments, come to that) beyond their immediate circle of friends.
Is it not interesting how we have all been dreading the emergence of the surveillance state, and yet so many of us almost do the work of the snoopers for them?
Take a look at the video below, which I came across in Far To Close, Close To Far, by George Couros, for an excellent illustration of what I’m talking about.
I would love to be able to say I have the definitive answer to all this. I don’t. I think everyone has to work out for themselves what is the most appropriate frequency, balance and nature of “status updates”.
Perhaps privacy is not an either/or concept, but a spectrum, along which we each have our own preferred spot or comfort zone. It does seem to me, however, that one cannot discuss the issue of online or digital identity without also considering privacy and e-safety.