Thoughts on Digital Identity in an Increasingly Transparent Future

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An example of an individual who has mapped out his digital identity

An example of an individual who has mapped out his digital identity

How many tweets have you deleted so far in your life? How many photos have you de-tagged since you joined Facebook? If you’re like me, over the years you’ve determined that all Facebook photos and ill-timed tweets are not created equal and are not all fit to print. As I’m sure many people have realized, social networking sites thrive on the evaporation of a wall of privacy that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Contact information, personal photographs, and self expression have exploded on the internet, all under the guise of “privacy” in the form of marking a check box to disallow certain people access to your digital life. Ten years ago (or about that time) I remember having my grandfather over for dinner. It was the night we decided to show him the Internet. We determined the best way to simultaneously blow his mind and sufficiently freak him out was to show him that his personal information was available without much searching. When we hit up whatever yellow pages site was popular at the time, we quickly located him and showed him that his address was available for anyone to see. We took it a step further by showing him how we could get directions to his house using that address. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t terrified. The best way I could describe his reaction would be to call him mystified. I’ll never forget what he said after his jaw finally un-dropped: “If I didn’t put that stuff on there, then how did it get there?” We all had a good laugh about the whole thing, but part of me always ruminated on what he said. Much like a child can often see through something and arrive at a very simple explanation for something immensely complicated, my grandfather had showed me something increasingly alarming about the Internet.

Nowadays, the Internet, with all its bells, whistles, blogs, and social networking upstarts, has become something that functions independently of how people make sense of it. When was the last time you thought: Wait, how does this stuff all work? In thinking about it all, it does not cease working. It churns on in the same state of exponential growth it was moving at before I thought about it. I read all about the DARPA initiative and the rise of Yahoo! and other tech pioneers like any other bored nerd, but the ever-growing cluster of information, media, and possibilities today are well beyond the comprehension of anyone without a PhD in computer science. Here’s how Twitter works: I write some words that add up to 140 characters, I press send, people read what I wrote. Done. But what happens if I don’t like what I wrote? Or more often than not with me, what happens when my iPhone auto-corrects “fuck” to “duck” and I want to re-post my thoughts with the correct expletives in place. DELETE. All the intricate technological synapses that took place in posting my bullshit attempt at sounding smart on my Twitter account have now instantly vanished, arguably faster than it took to put them on there.

Twitter and Facebook are fun for now, but what if you wake up like this in 20 years?

Twitter and Facebook are fun for now, but what if you wake up like this in 20 years?

Likewise when my best friend Suzie posts all the evidence of how sloppy things got at my birthday party last night in a WeHo bar, I have the ability to log on and selectively remove myself from the situation, at least on a surface level. While this isn’t the same as deleting the photos (damn you Suzie, for your incessant documentation of my consistently wasted existence!), I think it plays out the same way as deleting a tweet or removing a blog post. While few will argue against the importance of managing your digital identity in a world where ANYONE can join Facebook (i.e. mothers, fathers, bosses, ex-boyfriends, nieces, nephews, etc.), the concept of being able to remove pieces of information from the gigantic cerebral cortex that is the Internet is interesting to me. What if Bill Clinton went back and deleted his tweet from November 15, 1995 (alleged 1st encounter with M. Lewinsky) that said: “I feel a profound sense of relief and pleasure after my meeting with an intern… if y’all know what I mean lolz”? Or what if Noah Cross’ daughter/granddaughter de-tagged herself in J.J. Gittes’ photos that alerted the press that Hollis Mulwray had been cheating on his wife (thereby undoing the events that conspire to make Chinatown a classic film)?

I've never met Mark Z. but I assume he looks like this.

As my generation grows up, it seems as though there is going to be some interesting moments where someone stops being your 396th added Facebook friend and starts being a famous person, someone you’d rather not associate yourself with, or god forbid, an alleged criminal. How quickly will you de-tag yourself from photos with an acquaintance from your college years when you find out he’s been been convicted of a ponzi scheme 20 years from now? Will you be able to de-tag yourself fast enough to avoid having your name tarnished? How quickly will your convicted Facebook friend start deleting tweets and photos that seemed meaningless 2 years ago but could turn a court case in a different direction if discovered now? Who will stop him from doing so? Does anyone have the right to stop him?  You may recall the large arguments between users and creators on Facebook over the constantly changing Terms of Service that bind together the largest social network in the world. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to own your information even if you left the site or died: users thought that was a little too, I don’t know, Big Brother-ish?

When you factor in email, the situation becomes even more hectic. I don’t claim to know what’s going to happen when all this coallates into something CNN freaks out about (like Twitter), but I do think it will be a defining moment for my generation. Older generations may not experience this problem to the extent that mine will: even if they are still around when it happens, they are not as likely to have as many friends/followers as the reckless social creatures of my generation. A lifetime raised on high speed internet has bred a robust digital life for many of my kind. In the end, my generation will be faced with an important question: what will be the cost of being, or attempting to be, a celebrity in the digital age? It’s one thing to lose your job because you foolishly tagged photos of drinking tequila in your boss’ office after hours – it’s another to be called in for questioning when your college Chemistry partner wrote on your wall the night before his trial for running a crystal meth lab. Exaggeration has always been a strong suit of mine, but I think the fact remains that for some, the daily web apps we swear by may be that the ones that undo us.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on Digital Identity in an Increasingly Transparent Future”

  1. jeff Says:

    not to mention it could ruin your marriage as well

    http://nfl.fanhouse.com/2009/05/29/falcons-player-quinn-ojinnaka-arrested-in-facebook-flap/

  2. Twitted by DJ_Steve Says:

    […] This post was Twitted by DJ_Steve – Real-url.org […]

  3. Your Name… or Your Life! « Lifting Fog Says:

    […] watching a lot of HBO’s Deadwood lately and I know I must seem like I’m on some sort of digital persona kick, but on the eve of tonight’s online gold rush I just can’t help but post about this. […]

  4. DJ Steve Says:

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/11/12/facebook.alibi/index.html

    first of what I presume to be, many examples

  5. Gail Says:

    The Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablet is also available
    for $249. 6-inch touch screen display and comes with Touch wiz 2.
    It also includes USB and Bluetooth connectivity, document viewer, off-line mode and Quad-band.

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