Belonging

On Being at the Mercy of Your Online Profile

The internet has many wonderful aspects and uses, but the inclusion of a little more wisdom, and respect for human dignity is surely a good and necessary thing.

By Michelle Martin
Published May 07, 2009

Been thinkin' about online reputations. Some old, some young. Been thinkin' there's a whole mess of damage being done, in ways we're only beginning to understand. And we'll only understand if we take some time to stop and think about it.

Here in the online wild west, it might be time to call on the Marshall:

Marshall McLuhan
You're such a groovy thinker
We really dig what you say
'Cause you've got the best
Insight into mass media
This side of the Rio Grande

-- The Vestibules

People have been repeating that old McLuhan nugget, "The medium is the message," for forty five years - ever since it appeared in his book Understanding Media, the year I was born. To this day, it's bandied about with varying degrees of insight or even comprehension.

I know I don't yet fully grasp what he meant by it, except the idea that our use of any medium impacts both us and the society around us because of its form as well as its content - and that new media can do this in unforeseen and profound ways.

But wait, there's more.

As Mark Federman, Chief Strategist for the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, has written in his essay What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message: "Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. [emphasis added]"

Of course it's obvious on the surface that blogs, email, Facebook, Twitter and so on have changed interpersonal dynamics. But what specifically concerns me about this is the capacity for damage to personal reputations and its impact on relationships.

Because of the viral nature of the internet, something you did when you were fifteen can keep popping up in search engines for years.

I wonder if McLuhan realized just how prophetically he was speaking when he said, "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." I wonder if he knew how very true this would prove for the Star Wars Kid, who was last in the news when he reached a settlement with his original tormentors.

He was perhaps the first high-profile example of cyberbullying. I'll be honest, here: I hesitated to even mention him, because I didn't want to whisper into the perpetual online echo chamber. But I decided I could link to the 2006 Globe and Mail article in this case, since he willingly provided quotes to the reporter who wrote it, unlike the video which originally caused him humiliation and was stolen and posted without his knowledge.

Cyberbullying isn't the only way that a person's online identity can be tampered with. I recently read about a businessman who has been libeled as a child molester by a disgruntled employee on a message board. The offending web page comes up quite high on a Google search - first page, in fact.

This unfortunate soul has, so far, no legal recourse because of jurisdictional differences and statute of limitations issues. The world wide web is indeed world wide, and legislation hasn't caught up everywhere, nor is it consistent.

It is a basic human right to be able to own and control our identity. Both cyberbullying and internet libel are pretty obvious assaults on that right, but there are other ways in which our personhood can be harmed.

For example, isn't it an assault on our dignity when our identity is established for us by others by rating our personality, achievement, and appearance in a public forum? You can't really sue anyone for that, can you? They're simply expressing an opinion, not accusing anyone of anything. And yet it trespasses on us, just the same.

Sites like Zoominfo are also tresspassers. Last month, I wrote about discovering my Zoominfo page. Some search engine had begun to compile a profile for me, without my knowledge. Unlike my pioneer ancestors, I couldn't go running out with a shotgun warning them to git offa my land. I had to settle for giving them my email address in order to claim my profile.

You'd think as a writer I'd be happy about this - hey, someone's compiling my published writing for me. But is it my best work? Nope, it's some old letter to the editor. I'm not ashamed of it, but if I was putting together a portfolio for a job application, it's not what I would start with or even include. Isn't it my right, as a person, to decide what I will present as my best work?

Thank goodness this wasn't going on back in the day and that The Varsity wasn't online. The one or two letters of mine they published were not my best work and let's just say that the tone I employed in composing them was not representative of my best self.

Nor were any of the other mistakes of my youth representative of my best self. Thank goodness those mistakes are pretty much buried, and only a few people concerned would know about them, if they remember them at all. If I was young today, they could well be a matter of public record, embarrassing to me even though they were relatively mild.

There were no camera phones to take pictures of me, no Facebook to post them on, no message boards for me to impulsively post ill-chosen remarks that I would come to regret...

There are scores of articles about young people, and even older people, feeling their lives or careers are ruined because they did something stupid, feeling like they have no chance to start over because of the infinite online echo chamber. How will this affect their freedom to choose to act differently, or even rightly, if their identity becomes the sum of their past mistakes or indiscretions, and the immediate nature of the internet perpetuates it?

It may be like living in a small town where every citizen knows, through the gossip mill, everything you've ever done, even if they don't really know you. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which McLuhan's prophetic phrase "global village" is meant to be taken.

Bear in mind that in the past you could always leave your small town and strike out somewhere else. How on earth can someone escape a global village? How will this affect our capacity to create and sustain human relationships of all kinds in the long run?

Any one person is the sum of failures and triumphs, flaws and virtues, insurmountable difficulties and obstacles overcome. He or she is more than just his or her words and actions at one moment in time. But a computer file is just that - one moment captured, in binary code.

As Neil Postman, in a talk he gave in Denver [PDF link] for a 1998 conference on New Technologies and the Human Person, stated, "Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom."

I'm no Luddite, and I know that the internet and the global village, like computers and small towns, have many wonderful aspects and uses. But the inclusion of a little more wisdom, and respect for human dignity, into the construction materials of our information highway is surely a good and necessary thing.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

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By Diannewood (registered) | Posted May 07, 2009 at 16:34:49

Great article. Lots to think about here. But it is a little late to go back now. I guess there is a chance at some point the whole thing will crash and we can start again.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 07:10:40

Hello again Michelle, I never seen your ZoomInfo. I never searched your name either. I am intrigued by what you write today and tomorrow not yesteryear.

I was on the path to becoming a computer geek in the early 80's but something about them turned me off. I shied away from what I called "The Beast" for 20 years until my dad handed down to me his old win95.

Because of my background, within a short amount of time I was back where I left off. It didn't take long for me to learn that it truly is the beast. But like any wild animal, it can be made tame.

For some IT is a play thing and for others IT is a tool. What bothers me more than things I wrote in the past "popping up" is when important things I write today, are with clever devices, prevented from the main- stream view. For example, I attempted to notify parents about disturbing policy forthcoming by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board regarding our children's education K-12. I did this through the Hamilton Spectator's blogs. I remained on topic, non-derogatory and to the point, yet my carefully arranged compositions were moderated into oblivion.

I did not lose my composer however. I notified fellow bloggers, friends, family and even my ward councilor. You and your readers must decide if I am off base with this one. My efforts to expose the censorship may have possibly led to a ten day extension for public input regarding Gender Equity Policy in the public school system. We have until May, 11 to respond with our views, to protect our family values.

To learn about PEACE (Public Education Advocates for Christian Equality): http://peace.sealman.ca/

To see the niggling bits: http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/aboutus/policies/...

To Have Your Say: http://www.hwdsb.on.ca/aboutus/policies/... OR mailto:brent.monkley@hwdsb.on.ca

Thanks for Sharing Michelle. And Diannewood, I second that emotion

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By JonC (registered) | Posted May 08, 2009 at 08:59:07

Your comment took a weird turn half way through. Please leave your religious views out of the public school system. Hamilton-Wentworth's school board has been dragging their asses on creating a policy for equality for a long time and the policy is specifically non-discriminatory against all people.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 09:12:09

Re: the previous two comments.

That's not what my article was about, but I'll attempt to tie them in by saying that one of the wonderful aspects of the internet is the opportunity for interesting com box discussions about the matter at hand. And one of the downsides is off-topic arguments.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 12:54:07

I like Postman quite a bit, and that talk's no exception. I remember his points on the changing nature of political discourse from Amusing Ourselves to Death, and it's interesting to apply them now, years later, when we're at the point where we have YouTube questions on debates.

I'm reminded of an acquaintance of mine that wrote something quite neutral once - a single sentence - about theta brain waves (the ones where you're drowsy/half-asleep/daydreaming, and are conducive to good ideas) - and had it terribly misconstrued by various folks who drew out all the worst possible connotations. He still laughed about it, but it's amazing how no matter what you post, anything can be taken the wrong way.

Personally, I find myself not as worried about past foolish choices coming back to haunt me... as I do about the lack of ability to appropriate one's information for different groups and different contexts. The fact that anyone from my mother to my employer to my worst enemy to a Jr. High student can read my blog, forum posts, online profiles, etc. is a bit disconcerting simply because in normal conversation, one wouldn't be tactless enough to do that "information dump" without considering the pre-existing relationship and how much disclosure is warranted.

On the other hand, I think it forces a level of integrity and consistency, and that's somewhat a good thing.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 08, 2009 at 13:14:31

"I think it forces a level of integrity and consistency, and that's somewhat a good thing." -- Meredith, above Thanks for the comment. I agree, and have often thought the same thing.

What is worrying, and I think particularly dangerous for young people, is that cyberspace is the location of so much of their interaction that it begins to feel like normal face to face conversation and they let down their guard quite easily.

I'm fortunate that the use of the internet in every day life didn't really take off until I was well on my way to middle age, with all the caution and wisdom that comes from previous mistakes where things like disclosing too much personal information are concerned.

I try to remind my own kids to be careful about giving their heart away (not to shy away from friendships, of course- just to be prudent), even in conversation. I feel advice like this has become more urgent, technology being what it is. I hope the long term result of this will be to in fact encourage more integrity and consistency, and at the same time I wonder about the ramifications of inevitable mistakes in this regard.

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By Whoami (anonymous) | Posted May 14, 2009 at 18:02:58

Somebody's always worrying about the internet, but it's a done deal and has already changed how we relate to each other, for better or worse. Yeah, we should be aware and use it knowingly, but then again, how it gets used affects what we know about it. The reality of the internet is no longer virtual. Newspapers, text on paper, are increasingly becoming virtual. Authorities still try to bar the door, but truth and fact have left the barn. And anyway, I have published copies of all sorts of stuff that I've written that I now wish were better, or about which I've changed my mind, or at least should hope so. That's a part of growing and learning.

When an employer or authority uses something you've put on the internet against you, they are the type of people to avoid anyway, but they are also the type of people who are losing power in an economy that is increasingly dependent upon the free flow of ideas.

There is no reconcilliation between the notion that much of what's on the internet is unverifiable and the idea that what you put on the internet can be used against you. You are what you say you are until you say you're something else. And that's as it has always been.

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By Rexfield (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2009 at 13:23:38

In many cases horrible problems have been avoided for the community as a result of anonymous blogging. This includes whistle blowing for white-collar criminals, community awareness when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

Benefits notwithstanding, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and anonymous free speech on the Internet is one such omelette. There is no such thing as free speech; there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. However, often their many false and deceptive rumors, and libelous attacks are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people; in fact they are actually fueled by other people's pain. Normal people like 97% of the readers of my comment cannot begin to relate to how these people think. Stop for a moment and imagine not having a conscience..... it is simply impossible.

A concerted, focused and malicious Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.

Respectfully submitted by Michael Roberts.
Internet Libel Victim's Advocate.
http://www.Rexxfield.com

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By Rexxfield (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2009 at 13:23:45

In many cases horrible problems have been avoided for the community as a result of anonymous blogging. This includes whistle blowing for white-collar criminals, community awareness when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

Benefits notwithstanding, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs and anonymous free speech on the Internet is one such omelette. There is no such thing as free speech; there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. However, often their many false and deceptive rumors, and libelous attacks are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people; in fact they are actually fueled by other people's pain. Normal people like 97% of the readers of my comment cannot begin to relate to how these people think. Stop for a moment and imagine not having a conscience..... it is simply impossible.

A concerted, focused and malicious Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.

Respectfully submitted by Michael Roberts.
Internet Libel Victim's Advocate.
http://www.Rexxfield.com

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By Rexxfield (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2009 at 13:24:24

Sorry for dup post, browser crashed

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