When is it better not to know something? What does it say about you when you truly believe ignorance really is bliss? How instructive is it to know the extent of your digital tattoo?
Spinning Beach ball
Yes, ok, if someone really wants to find me they can find me in that some of the information is public record (or I myself have volunteered). However, it’s the ease with which the information can be found these days. It is so much easier and potentially more likely that we will experience the social hacking of our lives by triangulating public information in order to gain access to more sensitive parts of our lives. (This is one of the hardest identity theft concepts I keep trying to impress on my septuagenarian parents and in-laws!) Having to live in a constant state of vigilance about such things as we now do is the digital version of low-level PTSD.
In this TED Talk, Juan Enriquez leads with physical tattoos, which made me realize one significant difference between them and the digital variety: Whether good or bad decisions, a body tattoo is a choice we make. However, many of our digital tattoos are choices made by others that we must live with.
Nevertheless, I thought a bit about Nicole’s admonition that in an online, networked age, we need to have some searchable presence. It offered a palliative — or at lease a beneficial trade-off. Accepting that some of our credibility is tied not just to the nature of our digital tattoo, but to its very existence, deepens my roots as a digital resident. I, too, am not hiding anything. I took to heart advice I heard way back in the ’90’s: “If you’d be embarrassed to have your grandmother read it, see it, or hear it, don’t post it.” So, I was not worried about finding anything unseemly or compromising. (Color me boring. Or old.) If someone wants to use their time rummaging through all my personal information, and spend about $30 to access all of it, have at it. There’s nothing prurient to see if prurience is what they’re looking for. And that feels good to know.
Still, how accurate it all was was unnerving! Every town I’ve lived in, names of my family members, universities I’ve attended, our home purchase price and tax info, my social media profiles, all there. I found tweets of mine embedded in the blogs of complete strangers — one from the Cubs’ victory and another on the SCOTUS marriage equality decision. I even found my Twitter and Instagram accounts listed among the “most active” on a blog tracking the MLB playoffs. Who knew?? But the discovery traveling the farthest from out of nowhere was a June 2014 church newsletter. Apparently, my mother put my name in for the month’s birthday prayers and it got posted on the church web site which no one knew anything about until this week. Talk about having no way of knowing how and from where your information will show up online!
Other surprises included differing search results depending on the search engine and browser used. Finding different results between search engines was less surprising, given differences in algorithms. However, I did not expect the differences between browsers. I’m curious about why that would be.
Ones & Zeroes
The internet and social media are platforms, facilitators, amplifiers. Like everything humans create, they are extensions of us — our good, our bad and our in between. Sadly, many choose to use social media to amplify the basest elements of human nature. But I believe as Nicole does that “the internet can do amazing things. It’s not all negative.” I love the idea that “your online presence gives you a great opportunity to use social media for good.” As well the idea of using it for creative purposes, making online “interest portfolios” to use as models for professional use and CV’s. But I’d like to soapbox a minute against the idea of our digital tattoos as “personal brands”. I have to admit to wanting to scream every time I hear this term or am queried about my own. “Personal brands” represents the commodification, the marketing of individuals. This trend may result from a downside of social media, perhaps because they too are blends of written or aural text and visual images — the very elements upon which branding relies. But companies have brands. Services have brands. Products have brands. Cattle have brands. Which is fine for huge entities that need to be recognized quickly, compressing concepts and information into a single graphic or seconds on radio or TV.
But I resist what to me comes off as the hipster social media-driven fad and pretentiousness of “personal brands”. People have reputations, interests, integrity. And for people, that is what their digital tattoo represents. Never Seconds and @thebenevolentone3 are not Payne’s and Konner Suave’s brands. They are extensions of their curiosity, their empathy for and kindness towards others. Which now, thanks to the astonishing power of social media, nearly every human on the planet can witness. These digital platforms are perfectly suited to explain, demonstrate, exhibit, connect the incredible complexities that make up us human beings. And in so doing, make people and society better for it. So why in the world would we ever settle for reducing people like Martha and Konnor to the something as crass as a brand? [Climbs down off soapbox.]
Whether, what, and how this information should be taught to students obviously depends on the age of the students and the complexities and goals of what is being taught. What if we thought about it like we do sex ed (where schools or parents still teach sex ed!)? Usually, the basics are taught before puberty. Then instruction becomes more nuanced as children mature through middle and high school. When it comes to digital tattoos, parents and computer teachers should both be involved. However, as much as I believe most of this instruction should be coming from home, at this moment in history, I doubt most parents have the depth of knowledge themselves to do it effectively.
As for when we should start, I would say just prior to the age where their getting their own devices or accounts. Perhaps elementary teachers start with demonstrating the kinds of information that can be found online through activities with Fakebook & Twister . Students could examine examples and non-examples from which they discuss possible consequences for each. Adolescents, though, can conduct limited searches guided by their teachers. However, regardless of who teaches about digital tattoos and when, just dis-covering of what information can be found online is not enough. Parents and teachers both need to press kids to answer, “So what? Why is this important to know?” That’s where the understanding and consequences lie.
In the end, I’d say it was beneficial to push through the anxiety. I have a sense of the size and shape of my digital tattoo. Maybe someday I’ll pay that $30 on Spokeo to unlock my full profile. In the meantime, it’s good to know that I’ve made wise choices about my own postings. It feels good to know that in a very limited way I’ve contributed some thoughtful, creative elements to the internet and social media. And I’ve made good choices when it comes to friends since I didn’t find myself compromised by any of their social media choices either. Am I as blissful now as I was when I woke up Monday given my loss of ignorance? Let’s call it a break-even.
"'Right to Be Forgotten' Online Could Spread" (New York Times) - In an effort to counter some of the possible stigma from digital tattoos, the EU defined the "right to be forgotten". Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman- A wonderful book that imagines 40 different possibilities for the afterlife through 2-page vignettes. Several are a bit cyberpunkesque. These two excerpts have haunted me for the exact reasons we're considering this week.