Annual E-Footprint Freakout
I use the web to date. Not dating sites, but the information people make available on the social networks I use. A stream of seemingly meaningless updates can tell me more about a person than a carefully curated dating site profile or first date conversation ever could.
It's the age in which we live. Updating our Twitter and Facebook streams, posting pictures and ranting on our blogs has become second nature to us and a host of this information is readily available for perusal by interested parties. In my case, the interest is personal. But singles aren't the only people browsing the web.
Future employers do and the media has started to do it, too. When stories break about a person, more and more journalists jump on Google, searching profiles the web over for more information.
It's a natural progression we logically understand, but stop to think about it long enough -- as Jenna Wortham at the New York Times' Gadgetwise blog did -- and you might find yourself in a bit of a crisis:
I found it a little jarring to remember that these little half-lives I’ve lived on the Web could one day come back to bite me. In all likelihood, some of those lives are encased in abandoned online services that didn’t gain traction or lost my attention. [ … ] we are only beginning to glimpse the consequences of living in a digital era where what we post is filed away on a very public and very permanent file.
I decided to do a little ego-surfing experiment. I was going to Google myself and assess the information I found as though I was looking up a stranger.
DO THE GOOGLE
First up, my blog, which lets people know I am, or rather, the subject of our query is a Peruvian ex-pat living in Los Angeles who is interested in the effect of the web on personal relationships and journalism. Not updated very frequently, though the press section contains a handful of suggestive photos of her, courtesy of the LA Weekly.
All right, so this woman is a writer and she goes out a lot -- in kitty ears, corsets, tutus and other interesting outfits. Not damning as far as decency goes, but interesting.
Next up on the Google fact-finding mission: Twitter. Bio: "There's an undeniable dynamic between a culture's sexual narrative and its social reality. Our sexcapades and desires are incredible artifacts." Thought-provoking. Let's look at some tweets...
Comments made to friends in passing: “I apologize for the delay in response, darling. I was getting my orifices filled -- and I don't mean Restylane, though that helps” and “sex appeal is an orchestration of variables within and without. Anyone who claims the external has no bearing on it is delusional” begin to define this stranger a little more. Further down the timeline, a tweet identifies our person of interest as “the Oracle at Delphi, reupholstered in KY Jelly” who is so “ravenously horny,” she “can't even conjugate verbs.”
Interesting. Then something else catches our eyes -- the background on the Twitter page. It looks like a woman, but there's something else going on. I click to view background image and encounter this:
It appears to be our subject covered in white spatter we can only assume is supposed to be... the excitement of a male audience.
All righty then. Let's move on. Third search result, is an article she appears to have written for BlogHer: Could It Be You're Not the Relationship Kind? A quick skim reveals she was married and is now divorced and apparently has no interest in a relationship.
Back to the search results -- the next offering is from Google Images.
You don't have to scroll at all to find her in lingerie. Right there, on Google. More than once. There is also a shot of a backside, and while we can't assume it's her (it's not), it must be because this is Google and Google doesn't lie. There is also a picture of her attempting to swallow her shoe and licking a gun.
Also there are photos of her with people from the tech and social media set. Interesting.
Next up: Facebook, which is not very private.
Sex and relationships columnist at BlogHer. Warrior for opening up the discussion about sex and desire. I edit the L.A. based sex news blog Sex and the 405 and curate NakedCity: Los Angeles.
One part asset, one part liability, I collect fantasies, desires and secrets from people in every industry from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. That I protect the identities of the guilty goes without saying.
Don't be afraid -- I don't bite unless it's foreplay.
Explains the geek types in the Google Image search. One can only imagine what she knows. The subject's account on LinkedIn confirms she's a sex and relationships columnist for BlogHer and Village Voice Media.
Her FriedFeed account offers her in her underwear -– apparently in the middle of the street:
Four out of six messages on this account are about sex. Half of these appear personal in nature.
Sprinkled liberally between social media sites are articles written by the subject such as The Man Guide to Oral Pleasure, Five Things To Never Say To A Guy, and How To Pick Up Women, but perhaps the most interesting offerings from our sojourn into Google are the things that the subject didn't post herself.
Wall Street Journal best-selling author and cartoonist Hugh MacLeod was inspired by her to make a piece for his daily bizcard, a privilege otherwise apparently only conferred on the Who's Who in business:
She appears to have done interviews on a variety of topics and received coverage for a miscellany of things from LAist to KTLA; for instance, the LA Times turns up with an allegation that the subject only dates men she meets on Twitter:
She rode into the New York Times via VentureBeat after publishing the nudes of Zivity founder Cyan Banister (with permission) and Mediabistro's Fishbowl LA picked her up for a recommendation she gave on Twitter involving blowjobs.
I think we can stop here.
One can take two approaches to what we have uncovered. We can think the subject is a tramp who obviously doesn't understand the implications of the web, or we can assume that she's knows how to leverage the web, media and her own social life to further her career, which, as we discovered on LinkedIn, is writing about sex.
A smart company may recognize this in the event she decided to make a drastic career change. The question would be whether the benefits of an apparently media-savvy employee would outweigh the potential liability of being represented -- however minorly -- by someone who has made such a catalog of personal information about herself public.
More and more sites are coming out helping to execute what we lovingly call "social media suicide" -- that is, the deletion of all social media profiles. But Google's library of cached information and images is great, and we always have the WayBackMachine, not to mention the fact that the Library of Congress acquired Twitter's archive.
So in a sense, once something is out there, it's out there. In the ideal world, we're hyper-aware of this on more than a theoretical level and we make no mistakes. But this isn't the ideal world, and we have an entire generation that has had access to these services from an early age and set about chronicling everything from their first kiss to losing their virginity to getting wasted.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt sees a solution: in the future, young people turning 18 should be entitled automatically to change their names in order to "disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."
Instead of moving toward openness, of finally learning to accept that we're human beings, prone to error as much as success, we should encourage a culture that disowns its past. Say what?
Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and scholar of the social effects of the web, shared anecdote about his wilder days when the New York Times last hyperventilated about this issue (May, 2009):
When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester studying abroad. We were a small group of students, far from home and not well integrated into the life of our host country, so a typical Friday would involve settling in at one of our various seedy flats and drinking.
One particular Friday evening, which started with lime-free tequila shots and moved to swigging cheap vodka from the bottle, my hair caught fire. (I think — though I am hazy on the details — that I may have set it on fire myself.) In any case, my hair lit up quite nicely, which might have alarmed me while sober, but on that particular evening, it seemed like the sort of thing that happens from time to time.
Fortunately, my friend Paul was better able than I was to imagine a bad outcome from leaving my hair alight. He leapt to his feet, staggered to the couch where I was sitting, and extinguished my head. My haziness notwithstanding, I have an indelible image of Paul leaning over me, his face lit by the flame, as he blew out my hair like a birthday cake.
It’s a safe bet that one or more pictures of those proceedings would be on Facebook, had I not been born so deep in the last century that we had no Facebook.
Society has always carved out space for young people to misbehave. We used to do this by making a distinction between behavior we couldn’t see, because it was hidden, and behavior we could see, because it was public. That bargain is now broken, because social life increasingly includes a gray area that is publicly available, but not for public consumption.
Given this change, we need to find new ways to cut young people some slack. Privacy used to be enforced by inconvenience; you couldn’t just spy on anyone you wanted. Increasingly, though, privacy will have to be enforced by us grownups simply choosing not to look, since it’s none of our business.
This discipline isn’t just to protect them, it’s to protect us. If you’re considering a job applicant, and he has some louche photos on the Web, he has a problem. But if one applicant in 10 has similar pictures online, then you’ve got a problem, because you’ll be at a competitive disadvantage for talent, relative to firms that don’t spy.
People my age tut-tut at kids, telling them that we wouldn’t have put those photos up when we were young, but we’re lying. We’d have done it in a heartbeat, but no one ever offered us the chance. Now that kids have these capabilities, it falls to us to keep our prurient interest in their personal lives in check. Just as Bill Clinton destroyed the idea that marijuana use was a disqualifier to serious work, the increasing volume of personal life online will come to mean that, even though there’s a picture from when your head was on fire that one time, you can still get a job.
TechCrunch's Michael Arrington knows this isn't just about kids, offering this take: "It’s time we all just give up on the small fights and become more accepting of the indiscretions of our fellow humans. Because the skeletons are coming out of the closet and onto the front porch."
Could our overshares ever be accepted and embraced? It makes me think of a piece in The Austin Chronicle also from 2009, which had an incredible quote from author Bruce Sterling: "There's a lot to be said for being ‘out.’ Put a bold, Nicolas Sarkozy-style public face on your indiscretions. If you quiver all over, thinking you should privately hide in the back of the bus -- 'I'm private and invisible here, no one should know I exist' -- that just strengthens the hands of bossy people who want to keep you hidden in the back of the bus. Nobody outs Rosa Parks."
BE HUMAN AND LET OTHERS BE HUMAN
They're right. We can live lives of constant self-censoring, or we can begin affording people the right to be human.
Heaven knows I could have jumped on the wagon calling Apple App Store director Phillip Shoemaker a hypocrite for following porn stars and escorts on Twitter when the App Store's sole mission seems to be to sanitize every available product developers design for the iCatalog. But I won't.
I won't because I believe in personal choice and freedom. Whatever value he finds in these connections is for him to judge. He has a job with Apple to maintain the products they offer free of pornography, but that doesn't mean the man shouldn't be able to enjoy whatever he likes in his personal time.
If he were broadcasting the pornography he was watching, that may become an issue for Apple to address, but simply following these accounts doesn't mean he is any less qualified to do the job that Apple requires of him.
And this coming from someone who is so opposed to Apple's draconian anti-pornography stance that I will gladly take a hammer to my iPhone once the phone I want comes out.
That's what it means to remember the human and allow others to be human.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.