Privacy, Part 2: The little guys

That’s us. The little guys. Anyone with a blog, anyone on a social network, or anyone that merely observes conversation online and absorbs knowledge. Whether you are a participant or a spectator, online privacy applies to you in one way or another.

And that is just what Daniel Solove points out in his book, “The Future of Reputation.” The Internet is leveling the playing field, allowing anyone to communicate, contribute and access information. But how can we protect our personal information online? How do we preserve our reputations?

Solove presents Charles Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, in which “we form selfhood based on how we think other perceive us” (p.31). This is an interesting idea—the thought that we would mold our reputation based on potential motivating factors from others. But I wonder how this translates online.

Offline, it’s easy. We hear rumors about ourselves, spend time with friends and family, and somehow grow into who we are. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we are not the only ones contributing to our reputation. If we make a mistake, it will likely blow over. If we do something remarkable, people in our immediate social circle will praise us. But over time, those memories will fade as new ones come into the picture.

Online, it’s a whole new playing field. Information flows freely and rapidly, and the Internet “amplifies and alters information permanence” (p.33). Take a misstep and your name could be plastered across blogs and discussion boards forever.

Solove suggests a simple solution: “The best thing to do when faced with a malicious rumor is to spread correct information as rapidly as possible” (p.37).

But how can everyone live up to this responsibility? What about those who are just spectators? Maybe they did something offline that caused a blogger to write about them, or post a video online. If that information goes viral, the spectator could become the subject of comment and criticism.

The above example is an unfortunate circumstance, but I think that these issues are a reality that almost everyone will have to face (if they aren’t already facing it now), in the next 10 years. The Internet is not going to be the same place.

Charlene Li, author of the “Groundswell,” has asserted: “Social networks will be like air.” Soon, we will not know when we are online, or when we are living in the “real” world. Soon, these lives will be one in the same.

Once we’ve accepted that fact, its’ all about education. It’s about knowing the people in your social circle (on and offline). It’s about recognizing that anything you do may be accessible at the hands of millions. And it’s about knowing how to opt-out.

To help preserve online privacy in the future:

  1. Opt-out features need to be more clearly defined and accessible.
  2. Social networking sites should allow users to distinguish between close friends and acquaintances.
  3. There needs to be an overall higher level of education to both youth and adults about how rapidly data can spread online.
  4. Anonymity needs to be an option. I think that the use of pseudonyms is essential for many users to feel like they can share information. This allows for an open discussion forum where contributors often feel uninhibited. While in some cases this can lead to privacy concerns or the spread of false information, it is also valuable to enhance ongoing conversation. Solove’s example of Article III Groupie is a prime example.
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