Social media, privacy, and branding

I’ve started using Google+, and have been reading about its potential in the two areas that interest me most: education, and the Middle East. In the meantime I’ve been coming across lots of articles written for a general techie audience. The more I try to think through how I use the internet and social media, the more I’m thinking about the disconnect between different cultural contexts, different professional fields, and of course different generations of users. I think Google+ has the potential to bridge some of these gaps, but only if they can think beyond the needs of their early adopters.

First, some history

I first got online in the spring of 1992, when at the suggestion of a friend I joined a text-only BBS. Soon after that I was given an e-mail account by my university, but I didn’t understand why I should use that since literally everyone I knew who was online was on the BBS. I was aware that the internet could be used to share files between users, but otherwise the BBS was the internet, and I could not conceive of a world in which non-BBS people, like my parents, would use something as technologically sophisticated as this “e-mail” thing.

In 1994 the World Wide Web was born, and so was my daughter. When she was in kindergarten we took away her computer privileges for one week after learning she’d set up a web site without our permission. Back then we were still trying to be responsible parents, the kind who monitor their children’s activity online, because “online,” after all, is a dangerous place. We’ve long since given that up, of course. But what you should take away from this anecdote is that the web went from being “nonexistent” to “so easy to use even a kindergartener can do it!” in the space of five years.

Its image, however, did not change with equal speed. Well into the oughts, it was acceptable to use the internet for the occasional e-mail and light browsing, but to be one of those Internet People – someone who had a blog or web site, multiple user names, avatars, online “friends,” the whole bit – was to flirt with the “creepy” moniker. To be very clear: it didn’t matter what you did online; it was the act of being online itself that was suspect. Being able to use a computer at all meant you were some kind of freakish genius geek, but whatever bonus points you got in the intelligence department were quickly withdrawn because it meant you were also a basement-dwelling loser with no job, hobbies, friends, or social skills. Of course both these extremes were wrong; getting online took no special expertise, and just like real life, users ran the spectrum from charming and outgoing to weird and reclusive.

My daughter, now a teenager, pointed this out a couple years ago while watching the first few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition to noting some of the other ways in which this show was “old-fashioned” – the girls wore their pants too high; the fight scenes were boring – she thought it was hilarious that Willow was considered a super genius just because she knew how to get on the internet. “You can tell the show was from back in that time when people thought doing anything with a computer meant you were smart,” she said. “Plus Willow would just push a few keys and boom they’d have all the information they needed. People back in those days didn’t know what an internet search really looked like.”

“Back in those days” = 1999.

The internet’s PR problem

And so for the rest of the decade there was a generational divide: my daughter and other children of the ’90s were growing up having never so much as imagined a world without the internet, the way we grew up with phones and indoor plumbing; my parents and other Boomers – who have more economic power than other generations and who dwarf them numerically – were still suspicious of this new space full of pornographers and identity thieves; those in my in-between generation, the Gen X’ers who did not, technically, invent the internet but were responsible for almost all of its development, were using it in secret.

Yes, in secret. We understood this tool and were teaching it to our kids, but we were still hiding from the generation above us – our parents, relatives, professors, and most especially our potential employers. We didn’t share their skepticism of the internet but neither did we want to alarm them. The only exceptions were friends who worked in actual geek fields, as programmers or social scientists who studied the net as a phenomenon; they alone could afford to mix things up. The rest of us were careful to keep our online personas distinct from our professional lives. We wrote behind passwords and pseudonyms, turned off Google robots, and were vigilant about eliminating identifying information in public posts. Once again, what we were doing online was not (necessarily) suspect – it was the act of being online itself that might raise a flag. To name but one absurd example, a friend of mine who was working on a Ph.D. in sociology kept an excellent blog about doing sociological research. In a more rational world, it might have contributed to his professional reputation, since his work was meticulously researched and he was known to help other younger scholars navigate academia. But he knew that having such a strong online presence would only make him look like a creepy basement-dweller, so he wrote under a false name and was always worried that the tenured professors in his department would get wind of his embarrassing side project.

And then, all of a sudden, it changed. I blame/credit Facebook. My kindergarten teacher and second-grade piano instructor – ages 95 and 96 respectively – are on Facebook. So is everyone else. Aside from e-mail, Facebook is the first internet-related phenomenon I can recall where the expectation is that you are using it, and those who don’t use it are the ones who need to explain themselves. And, of course and rightly so, those explanations are accepted. The point here isn’t that Facebook is terrific. The point is that, for whatever reason, it’s not considered creepy.

And with that – it feels like overnight – we’ve gone from a world where you have to hide your online life to one where you are expected to have one. This came home to me about a year ago when I was reading a job application that asked, as one of its routine questions, for the URL of the applicant’s “web presence.” Presumably the answer could be a Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn account or, preferably, a blog or a web site. But the answer should not be “none” and it definitely should not be “what?”

Describe yourself in one sentence, please

I welcome this change. But with it comes a new oddity – the ubiquity of branding. Branding itself isn’t new; it’s probably been with us since the biblical era. Certainly since the 1920s. But branding used to be around products. Increasingly, it’s been wrapped around people. When someone asks you what your “web presence” is about, you should be able to answer coherently. “Armenian politics.” “Women in Victorian literature.” “Race-car driving.” “The year I lived off the grid, learning to weave.”

We do this in person too, usually by having a ready answer to “What do you do?” Responding with a job title is the norm, but things like “I’ve got two kids” or “I collect model trains” or whatever are also appropriate, depending on audience. What goes unsaid, but understood by both parties, is that the person behind this short answer is also undoubtedly a complex individual with an array of unrelated hobbies and interests and friends, which you would learn about if you got to know them better.

Online, it doesn’t seem to work like that anymore. Everywhere I turn, I’m reading advice on how to advance my personal brand, my online persona. And I think to myself, “Maybe I should get one of those.” But? I just don’t want to. I’ve wrestled with it, thought about how much easier my life would be if I had a public and professional capital-b BlogTM with a URL I could put on business cards, but it’s just not for me. I have a few sporadically-updated side projects that work that way, but I’ll never be able to cram my whole self into a single topic with a description so succinct it fits within a Twitter profile. I suspect most people can’t.

And this is where the geek/non-geek disconnect still seems evident. Geeks’ personal brand can be themselves, because their interests and professional lives usually have a lot of overlap and, most importantly, geeks aren’t penalized politically or professionally for talking about geekdom online. But if teachers talk about themselves or their jobs online, we’re in different territory.

I was reading an article yesterday about how to manage your social media presence and – once again! – it was filled with advice like “don’t talk about illegal activity.” They meant drugs. As an educator, though, I’m interested in more subtle things. Does someone blog about specific kids they’ve worked with, in ways that would be identifiable to that child or their parents? Have they ever published a child’s work online without permission? If you blog a lot about your skepticism of standardized tests, will you still be able to get a job that measures your performance by them? The examples are endless. Most of all, though, can being online at all still hurt you? Imagine, for instance, a 40-year-old male teacher with an account on a social networking site. Perfectly normal. But what happens when that site – none of its content, just its existence – is discovered by a school principal who isn’t really familiar with social media and associates the site with predators and cyberbullying? And this guy wants a job working with children?

Branding is a good answer for that teacher. If he can clearly show that his “web presence” is about something like curriculum development for early readers, or technology in education, he can get away with having a light, locked-down social media presence on other sites. Yes, he’s one of those Internet People, but look at the good he’s doing in the world! But if he wants to blog like geeks do, talking about the news and politics and his job and his cat and whatever lands in his inbox today, he’ll have a harder time justifying his heavy online footprint.

For activists in the Middle East, these questions are even more serious. In the last six months people have been tortured for their Facebook passwords. Governments are not only interested in having access to someone’s information; they will log in and post as that person (“the demonstration was canceled today!”). For these folks, being online at all is still the issue, and articles warning them not to post drunken Facebook pictures or to blog about their drug use are beyond pointless. That was never how they used the web.

You may say fine, point taken, but that kind of advice was always intended for a North American audience, so whatever. But these tools are being developed in an international context and have a huge international userbase, so I’d hope that developers are thinking broadly about how these issues apply to contexts beyond geekdom.

Some thoughts:

1. Google+ should be careful how it brands itself. I’m more likely to make heavy use of a site if its offline image is more adult than MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal. The content on my LJ was smarter and more interesting than the content on my Twitter (and had many more readers), but LiveJournal’s image was too juvenile for me to associate with my real name in any professional setting. It would be nice if I didn’t have to worry about this.

2. Create groups, not just circles. Right now, if I want to talk to people I don’t know about a shared interest, we have to add each other to at least one circle and then we are inundated with all of each other’s public content. In this regard even Facebook is better.

3. Give up any remaining insistence on real names. I use mine, but I don’t live in Syria.

4. Google’s multi-stage authentication process is an improvement on standalone passwords, but it doesn’t help people in countries where you’re kidnapped together with your phone. I don’t know how to get around this one, but it sounds like a problem geeks like to fix.

5. Tying your Google+ profile to everything else you do on Google, including your Gmail account and search history, puts activists who use Google’s other services at much greater risk than if the government only captures their Facebook password. I’m guessing Google thinks this integration is a feature, not a bug, and it’s one I’ll have to live with. But this is me, registering my discontent.

Beyond that, I’m really pleased with the potential here. As lots of people have noted, the privacy features are easier to use, more reliable, and easier to customize than on any site I’ve used since LJ. There are no space limits to status updates, so already some folks are treating it as a blog. Happily, I can add strangers to my circles without feeling like I’m stalking them – in that sense it’s like Twitter; there’s no expectation of reciprocity as there is on Facebook. And like LinkedIn, I can add all my education and employment history, as I would in a professional profile, and then make that available – or not – to selected people in my circles. I haven't used photos or video chats, but I'm told those work well.

All in all, it seems like a space that can meet many needs simultaneously. How well it will translate in practice for those outside nerd world and outside the U.S. remains to be seen. But I'm mostly optimistic.

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