February 18, 2009

Who Is Managing Your Online Identity?

Filed under: precat — Tags: , , , , , — tsladmin @ 9:40 am

I’ve been thinking a lot more about online privacy for the last couple of years, so I was already prepared for the current controversy over Facebook’s change in its Terms of Service, and it wasn’t much of a shock to me. I’ve never really posted pictures there, imported my own blog posts, or posted links to anything that wasn’t already public somewhere else, because their Terms of Service always said they owned it and could do whatever they wanted with it. Even though they seem to be backing off and reverting to the previous TOS, I hope everyone realizes that nothing has really changed because they can implement the same thing in the future at the drop of a hat.
One of the biggest questions that should come out of this is do you want Facebook (and other social networks) to manage your online identity for you and your children? Just as you should be taking responsibility to shred your credit card receipts, checking on your credit reports, etc. to manage your “real world” identity, you should also think through how you manage your online identity, because ignoring the problem and just not having an online identity can actually backfire on you. Does everyone have to blog? Heck no, but there are smaller steps you can take.
I first started taking my online identity more seriously after reading an article titled Say Anything in New York magazine three years ago. I still find it fascinating, and I’ve come to appreciate it even more after having a couple of privacy incidents occur in my own life.
The first incident caused me to backtrack on privacy and limit access to many of my accounts to just friends and family, taking a more traditional approach to the issue. I felt like I needed to shut down open access to my life in order to preserve my identity, so I also cut back on the number of people I friended and became a lot more selective. I became like the father in the New York article, wondering why I would ever make those things public.
During the second incident, however, it turned out to be very fortunate for me that I already had a well-known identity online. In that respect I’m especially lucky I started early because I don’t have a very unique name, “Jenny Levine,” made worse by the fact that I now share that online namespace with an actress.
Now I completely understand the view of the teenager in the article, that it’s better to control your own identity than to let someone else create one for you. I still keep Facebook separate and limited to friends, and I still post most personal pictures for friends and family only, but everything else I share is available publicly because it helps maintain my identity online. It also means I don’t have to struggle as much with who can see what, and how much, and should I friend them back, and all of the other questions that come with participating in social networks.
I think the issue of having some sort of public, online identity will become even more important in the future as kids grow up with digital dossiers that – in many cases – their parents have created for them since birth. In fact, I think we’re going to see a trend in which savvy, educated parents give their children strange(r), unique names so that they can easily register a domain name for them. That way, even a minor presence like a blog or lifestream will always come up as the first result when someone searches for the kid, either to combat false information or provide a positive image (eg, to a potential employer).
As the child grows up, s/he can take over the online presence and populate it him/herself, but at least it’s already established so that someone else can’t fake one. Who knows how long we’ll use domain names, but I think this will be an issue for at least the next decade, whatever form it takes, and I fully expect to see a rise in identity bullying.
Iris Jastram has written a great post titled Facebook’s Devilish Contract, explaining her internal debate over what to do about her presence on social networks. I particularly love her use of the term the “social time out chair,” which is where you put yourself if you don’t maintain a presence on these sites.
As she notes, it’s not really an option for many people to opt out of social networks altogether. Better to post things to your own site and participate at a level you’re comfortable with, because I can tell you from experience that it could actually hurt your identity and reputation if your response to these issues is to just ignore them or take your ball and go home. Even if you quit Facebook, you have to be vigilant elsewhere. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog, but they also don’t know that you’re you, and at this stage of the game, anyone can be you.

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