Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Control - Alt - Delete

I think it's safe to say that for the past decade or so, I've always made it a habit to warn students about putting too much of themselves out on the internet. The conventional wisdom, backed up by surveys at the time, was that the Millennial Generation was unconcerned with privacy, and that what someone types or sends out over the internet is "forever."

Apparently, according to a wonderful article by Jeffrey Rosen in Sunday's NYT, neither of these is true anymore. First, the data regarding privacy and generational trends.

Not all Facebook users agree with Zuckerberg [on transparency]. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that young people, having been burned by Facebook (and frustrated by its privacy policy, which at more than 5,000 words is longer than the U.S. Constitution), are savvier than older users about cleaning up their tagged photos and being careful about what they post. And two recent studies challenge the conventional wisdom that young people have no qualms about having their entire lives shared and preserved online forever.

A University of California, Berkeley, study released in April found that large majorities of people between 18 and 22 said there should be laws that require Web sites to delete all stored information about individuals (88 percent) and that give people the right to know all the information Web sites know about them (62 percent) — percentages that mirrored the privacy views of older adults. A recent Pew study found that 18-to-29-year-olds are actually more concerned about their online profiles than older people are, vigilantly deleting unwanted posts, removing their names from tagged photos and censoring themselves as they share personal information, because they are coming to understand the dangers of oversharing.
That's good news. Coming out of the days of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, surveys routinely showed Millennials were unconcerned with privacy. As the first generation to come of age with the internet as a technological norm, Millennials found privacy an antiquated concept. Not so, anymore.

Also, we really shouldn't caution just young people anymore about what they are doing, saying or putting out there on the internet. People in their 30's, 40's and beyond are just as capable (maybe more so, if the above is true) of saying and doing stupid things that could haunt their futures.

But more importantly, new technologies have evolved which will allow internet users to "scrub" their images and selves.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, in “Delete,” uses the Borges story as an emblem for the personal and social costs of being so shackled by our digital past that we are unable to evolve and learn from our mistakes. After reviewing the various possible legal solutions to this problem, Mayer-Schönberger says he is more convinced by a technological fix: namely, mimicking human forgetting with built-in expiration dates for data. He imagines a world in which digital-storage devices could be programmed to delete photos or blog posts or other data that have reached their expiration dates, and he suggests that users could be prompted to select an expiration date before saving any data.

This is not an entirely fanciful vision. Google not long ago decided to render all search queries anonymous after nine months (by deleting part of each Internet protocol address), and the upstart search engine Cuil has announced that it won’t keep any personally identifiable information at all, a privacy feature that distinguishes it from Google. And there are already small-scale privacy apps that offer disappearing data. An app called TigerText allows text-message senders to set a time limit from one minute to 30 days after which the text disappears from the company’s servers on which it is stored and therefore from the senders’ and recipients’ phones. (The founder of TigerText, Jeffrey Evans, has said he chose the name before the scandal involving Tiger Woods’s supposed texts to a mistress.)

Gmail, for example, has introduced a feature that forces you to think twice before sending drunken e-mail messages. When you enable the feature, called Mail Goggles, it prompts you to solve simple math problems before sending e-mail messages at times you’re likely to regret. (By default, Mail Goggles is active only late on weekend nights.)
Snicker. From a sociological view, what's happening here is more than just privacy and embarrassment. It's about what Goffman dubbed "the presentation of self"...controlling the image of ourselves that exists in the minds of others, only here as it applies online. These new technologies may suggest a merging of selves going on; that the various status sets and accompanying roles we hold and play throughout our live are becoming more unified as opposed to fragmented.

To put it another way, segmented selves, which seemed more the norm in the early "empowerment" days of the internet circa mid-1990's (the ability to be anyone or anything you wanted to be in the great anonymity of the internet), is now giving way to merged or whole selves via social networking. This is both good and bad, depending.
A recent study suggests that people on Facebook and other social-networking sites express their real personalities, despite the widely held assumption that people try online to express an enhanced or idealized impression of themselves. 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.)

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.”

Perhaps society will become more forgiving of drunken Facebook pictures in the way Gosling says he expects it might. And some may welcome the end of the segmented self, on the grounds that it will discourage bad behavior and hypocrisy: it’s harder to have clandestine affairs when you’re broadcasting your every move on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. But a humane society values privacy, because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts; and at the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.

Interesting. None of this is to suggest that we should abandon the "think before you send" credo that has been the norm (the rule of thumb I always use is "what would my mother think?"), but if people are becoming "more real," then perhaps the empowerment credo of the internet in its early days is coming true.

Regardless, the idea that people, particularly young people, should be tethered to (youthful) mistakes, drunken pictures, or something that should not have been sent, for the rest of their lives, is part and parcel of the myopic, zero-tolerance, unforgiving culture we live in today. Apparently, the motto, "there but for the grace of God go I" is lost on the absolute moralists and culture claques who sit in judgment.

I forget who said it, but "show me a person without a vice, and I'll show you a bore" pretty much sums it up. It's time to recognize people make mistakes in the digital realm, forgive them, and move on.

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