Planning Your Online Lives in 2011

Whether you are job hunting or working, the challenges of personal control of your online personality at work, societally and socially have never been more complex.A hundred years ago we had virtually no data associated with us beyond possibly owning a passport, a few pieces of legal paperwork and maybe some national security files about us we probably weren't aware of.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Whether you are job hunting or working, the challenges of personal control of your online personality at work, societally and socially have never been more complex.

A hundred years ago we had virtually no data associated with us beyond possibly owning a passport, a few pieces of legal paperwork and maybe some national security files about us we probably weren't aware of. Wireless telegraphy grew through three decades of radio telegraph communications techniques and practices between 1887 to 1920 before the term radio came into use, and only after fear, uncertainty and doubt about broadcast audio gave way to understanding and acceptance did it become a part of the fabric of our lives.

Where radio played a crucial twentieth century broadcast propaganda role, this first decade of our century has seen massive changes in the way we interact with each other due to the networked internet.

The internet is ubiquitous in virtually every area imaginable of modern life, but the way most people use it conflates several discrete areas of their life, while simultaneously their usage is increasingly mapped and tracked by all sorts of entities, whether marketers, intelligence agencies, employers or crooks...

Where individuals are highly sophisticated in grouping friends and associates to carefully reveal or conceal information in context to them, the result of thousands of years of complex personal and cultural interactions between us, the internet often tends to bleed out far more information than we would prefer. Like a socially immature friend, it tends to leak out information we may be trying to control. Your online presence is more sensitive than your real life one - indiscretions can be forgotten in 'real' life - but since your online record is persistent, your life is permanently and meticulously being mapped.

There are essentially three core areas to most of our lives:

Work - your responsibilities and common collaborative goals with your colleagues at your employment, which typically involves understanding what is secret and what are marketing communication efforts and broadcasts

Societal - the various subtleties and differences between the local, national and global worlds you live in

Social Life - Your intimates and family life and your broader friendship associations and fraternization choices

It's getting harder and harder to keep these three areas separate from each other, when you need to, while endeavoring to extract the maximum personal value from your online interactions.

People who aren't participating online are essentially invisible and are at a huge disadvantage now: whether writing a book or job hunting you are expected to exhibit online connections with, and contributions to, your chosen field. The visibility of your online personality (or 'personal brand' as people used to call it in the previous hi tech fashion season) requires more and more attention in order to retain control of it.

The hopelessly confused 'social media' world of enthusiasts and business ventures seems to be largely comprised of self appointed futurist theory experts and bored/overactive employees of large companies who occupy themselves on their digital devices instead of concentrating on what is actually being said and what their job is supposed to be, to quote a nameless disgruntled executive.

That last comment above came through my Facebook account, the lowest common denominator social network/ online watering hole, which is ironically full of people ranting about the paucity of features while experiencing the potential of their social graph within the free to use medium... arguing similar points to what Umar Haque notes in an HBR post  'Unlocking the Mayor Badge of Meaninglessness' about one of this hi tech fashion seasons buzzwords 'Gamification',

...Social media needs to enlarge its blinkered, myopic perspective on what the social really means. Trivialization, dehumanization, enslaved by the promise of a point, a badge, or a trophy, another friend, follower, or fan — that's the very definition of antisocial. That definition of "social" isn't: it promises to make tomorrow's organizations even more Kafkaesque, meaninglessly overquantified, hyperpoliticized, and tightly controlled than today's — and hence, of even littler use to society (hard as that may be to imagine).

If your Societal relationships are distinct from your Social ones as I argue above, then we are at a huge tipping point around the way we define and deal with secret information, whether on a societal or  work level.

Tech pundit Bill Thompson wrote an oped piece on the BBC News site titled 'A world after Wikileaks'

..This is democracy's Napster moment, the point at which the forms of governance that have evolved over 200 years of industrial society prove wanting in the face of the network, just as the business models of the recording industry were swept away by the ease with which the internet could transmit perfect digital copies of compressed music files.

Secrets are not the same as copyable digital consumer products, however, and the flaw in Bill's argument is that secrecy is defined outside of the access tools we use, whether on a societal or work level.

The Faustian bargain we strike with Facebook when we sign up for a 'free' account is allowing that company access to our information, which they data mine for profit. This thinking is the exact opposite of what is expected of you in a work environment where your contract is typically to protect corporate information within models defined by your management.

Wikileaks is essentially a political argument about the failure to protect sensitive information, and that responsibility lies with those tasked with protecting it for the various nation state societies involved. The mainstream media outlets publishing and profiting from the materials are arguably as culpable as the anonymous leakers of the US state department cable communications.

Organizing information so it is protected, whether from a state, company or individuals is critical to democratic society: the opposite is arguably a meticulously tracked world not dissimilar to the former east German Ministry for State Security commonly known as the Stasi, which is widely regarded as having been one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).

The Wall Street Journal have been running an excellent series on digital privacy called 'What they Know' which provides a glimpse into the vast world of trackingfingerprinting devicesinformation scrapers and other ways you are being data mined online.

How you organize your public persona around your distinct work, society and social lives is taking on ever greater significance and consideration as you differentiate between them. This of course has most impact in your  'real life' face to face with other humans world, something many technologists and entrepreneurs are not focused on.

Video and photography plays an increasingly important role in tracking by gum shoe private investigators investigating absent employees, as Eric Spitznagel of Bloomberg Businessweek wrote about earlier this month

...(private detective) Rick Raymond investigated an employee at a Florida health organization who called in sick with the flu for three days. As Raymond discovered, she was actually visiting the Universal Studios theme park. "On some of those roller coasters, they take your picture at a really sharp turn, and then you can buy it at a kiosk," Raymond recalled. "She went on three rides, and I bought all three of her pictures, which had the date at the bottom." When confronted with the evidence by her employers, Raymond said, her first response was, "That's not me!" After they played Raymond's video of her volunteering at the theme park's animal show, her only defense was, "I don't even remember that!" She was fired.

These 'real life' gotchas seem laughable, but you are probably furnishing vastly more information about yourself online, whether via email, forums, social networks or other online public or private chatting and publishing... as we enter the new year I suggest investing greater effort in inventorying what information you are sharing and how you are sharing it will pay dividends in all three areas of your life.

Editorial standards