Looking under what rises to the top: personal information in online searches

December 10, 2008

Nobody talks about the existential search for self as they did in the middle of the twentieth century, but I believe it’s still a powerful force, driving the flood of social networks, microblogging, and the posting of photos and videos to the Web. The urge toward self-definition exerts itself also when we search for information on other people—and that’s where it becomes a problem.

The problem gets a lot of press these days, expressed mostly in terms of privacy and dangers. A survey whose results were released today by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy shows that a large percentage of teens and young adults create sexually suggestive photos and text messages—and send them around to others rather promiscuously. (Update, December 18, 2009: A report from the Pew Research Center finds a much lower incidence of teens sharing sexually suggestive photos.)

Such activities can have wide repercussions. Employers are routinely entering the names of job-seekers into Google; college admissions officers check MySpace and Facebook for immature behavior by applicants; single people digitally spy on their dates before dinner. Even I make sure to look at blogs and other material pertaining to people I plan to meet at a conference.

It’s no secret that similar techniques are used on an enormous scale (with back-up from complex filtering technologies) by law enforcement to detect criminal behavior. Although the US Congress defunded the Total Information Awareness program, the Department of Homeland Security revived the same basic idea through Fusion Centers in every state. They collect data in all kinds of places ranging from day care centers to casinos, and track all manner of people with no grounds for suspicion at all.

Although we don’t want the government in our bedroom (and these days they’re almost literally here; check out the intelligence agents’ lascivious monitoring of troops’ phone calls to spouses), ordinary people poking around the Internet would be fine if we understood what we are seeing and what we are learning from it. It is no longer an option to ignore what’s on the Internet. Therefore, we must use the information with discernment. This mandates us to empathize with the reasons people put information online, and then to adapt our ways of viewing it.

What’s online and why

The pressure to create an online presence is undeniable, especially among young people. So pervasive is their participation that my son (who is not even particularly sophisticated digitally) once carried out the experiment of expressing his state of mind through the absence of posting.

The dangers of the “digital dossier” that starts on people even before birth are covered in the book Born Digital, which I reviewed a few months ago. It is a common topic among social scientists. A few savvy teachers try to guide children in how to exert care about what they place online. But this is a rear-guard action, for many reasons:

Things get really bad if you’re famous enough for a Wikipedia entry. Then there’s no hope for you; you’ve completely lost control of the message.

But most fundamentally, self-protection contradicts the goal of putting information about yourself online. You write blogs, join social networks, and post pictures or videos because you want to test your image and abilities before others. You grow from their feedback. This is a necessary part of any community and the life of any healthy individual. Among the researchers that have uncovered this human drive online is danah boyd, coordinator of a study that is soon to be published in book form.

Going online, therefore, is more than a pastime, and more than even a way to keep in touch with other people. Now that we have the online channel for distribution, we are adapting in ways that turn it into a necessity. But we have to grant to others the rights and respect that we need ourselves.

The meaning of the personal

There will never be a complete dossier about anyone. Each individual is too deep to capture accurately through postings. The following principles will help us understand what we can and cannot obtain from a person’s online persona.
The online image of a person is just that: an image

We always have trouble shaking the delusion that we can ascertain someone’s inner feelings or true nature from particular pictures or words. The reality is often different, and the explanations can sometimes be simple.

The most diligent A student—one who never turns in a paper late and always makes sure to get sleep before an exam—may go to a party in drag and ham it up with a beer keg precisely to show classmates he’s not an insufferable prude. He posts a picture of himself as a message to his peers. But a college admissions officer who sees it may throw his application on the rejection pile and deal a blow to a promising career.

Many interpretative errors are more subtle. In general, although one’s innermost nature does give impulse to one’s utterances, they travel though so many layers of self-interpretation that the impulse can no longer be seen in the results.

Every posting has a context

There’s a social rule we follow in my circle: never judge a friend by what he or she does during the year of a divorce. Political trends can be distorted by proximate events as well. The worst provisions of the PATRIOT Act might have been rejected by Congress had it not been presented to them in a rush shortly after the 9/11 attacks. And more recently, Senator Ted Kennedy caused the passage of a health care bill merely by showing up in the Senate. He was struggling with a life-threatening illness of his own, and opposition lawmakers were so touched by his efforts to attend that they switched votes to his position.

So far I’ve discussed erratic behavior among people who have finished adolescence and supposedly have stable personalities. What about the many young people who reveal themselves online while they are still undergoing normal maturation?

Nearly everything that people put online these days springs from a reaction to something. They may be interpreting news about the break-up of two friends, or responding to a scandal involving a musician or sports figure. You might be able to follow a link to get the context for what they say. But you’ll miss the even more important context that can’t be linked to. The friends with whom they’re discussing the break-up know more about the relationship than you’ll ever learn as an outsider, and if you haven’t heard the musician perform or watched the sports figure in a game, you’ll probably misjudge the intent and emotion behind a posting that makes reference to such things.

People change

Social anthropologists tend to describe online postings as a way of exploring one’s identity and relationships with other people. As such, the postings (as well as the identity) are sure to evolve. In fact, evolution is the whole point of the exercise; we put up revealing material because we want others to react and we want to see their reactions.

I can draw a modest example from my own online material, an example I included in the Born Digital review I mentioned earlier. In the mid-90s I was a fervid supporter of comprehensive (or “omnibus”) privacy laws, but critiques I’ve heard over the years have softened that position. In fact, the more nuanced view I’ve adopted of data and privacy has enabled me to write this article.

So it’s unfair to judge someone by what she put online even one month ago. It would be more legitimate to turn a provocative posting into the start of a dialog in which you engage the author to find out how the posting and the world’s response changed her.

Online information is a boon to trained historians, anthropologists, and others who know how to apply filters to information and continuously challenge what they see. The rest of us just muddle along, with problematic results. Basically, we interpret the things we don’t know in terms of things we do.

When the employer, admissions officer, and prospective dinner date conduct their online searches, they arrogantly assume that they can cull truths from about the inner nature of the person from the images they’re pulling up. I’d wager big odds that they fail to research what happened during the week or month that a posting went online, and that they apply their own cultural context to what they see. And I would be flabbergasted if they took the time to place a large selection of a person’s postings onto a historical timeline and analyzed her evolution. Things are fine if they use what they find as open-ended conversation starters. The danger is that they usually make decisions in a vacuum.

At the extreme end of the risk spectrum, some women have found it necessary to avoid identifying themselves online at all, because it opens them to many kinds of harassment. And this is a reminder that some online postings must be condemned, no matter what personal background underlies them—just as we can condemn Congress for passing bad laws even if they were blinded by the 9/11 attacks.

But any time someone makes instant judgments from insufficient information, he objectifies the person and denies her the right to an inner life.

This doesn’t mean the straight A student should ignore advice to keep his social networking page clean. He could probably get away with posting a party picture so long as he includes an explanation that provides the context someone such as a college admissions officer will need. But we never protect ourselves fully because we can never predict what our viewers will think, especially future viewers. And if we keep a tight rein on everything we post, we’ll lose the potential that communications media offer to help us grow.

Responsible data use

We can’t stop the flow of personal data to digital media and online forums. Nor do we want to. We want to create images of ourselves and provoke responses, as well as get all the other benefits of preservation and publicity that the media afford.

So it remains for the consumers of the data to learn restraint. They have to seek the impetus for each posting and figure out what the person was trying to accomplish through the posting. The consumers have to research the time and place of posting, and read enough about the person to view the posting on a timeline of the person’s development.

When we don’t learn how to empathize, we end up applying our personal filters. To a teetotaler, every bar scene looks like an incipient riot. To someone suspicious of Muslims, a prayer rug looks like a rejection of modernity. We go searching for someone else, and all we come back with is a mirror on ourselves—but all too often we don’t realize that. Searching becomes solipsism.

The employer I’ve been citing as a negative example—one who restricts online research to the obvious—is merely trying to create a company that reflects his image of what work is. The admissions officer is seeking to populate the student body with people who will act predictably. Both the company and the college would benefit from people who see life differently and can take these institutions in new directions.

I don’t believe one can legislate or regulate responsible data consumption; at most, institutions could provide training and policies to guide their staff. Perhaps we can guide each other by demanding that people justify what they report back from their online peregrinations. One can ask a colleague, a child, or a friend:

Such questions can ascertain whether our friends have used data responsibly. And without placing explicit demands on them, the questions may also prompt them to re-evaluate their judgements, and even (in the best scenario) run back for more information.

Before we bury our head in our hands, hearing that somewhere from 4% to 20% of American teens have shared revealing photos of themselves on cell-phones or online, we have to step back and ask: how much harm is done? It seems to me that along the spectrum of risky behaviors young people engage in (eating disorders, piercings in dangerous locations, etc.) to deal with body image problems that are universal at that age, a nude photo isn’t so bad.

I commend the National Campaign for expressing cautious and reasonable responses by parents and teachers. One of their recommendations is for parents to keep in communication with their kids, which is also what I’m trying to promote in this article. Another of their points is to consider the reaction of the recipient before sending a suggestive message. But each of us is also responsible for our own reactions.

Ultimately we have to accept what the existentialists always told us. There is within every person a place he or she can’t share, a place that shuts out all understanding. To assume we can predict behavior on the basis of a few flashes in the dark, a ten-minute video or a collection of blogs, is to deny their humanity. And although—because it’s a resource we are expected to use—we have no choice but to seek information online, we do have a choice to exercise humility and interpret it in a disciplined manner.

I’ll end this article with a philosophical aphorism. Let’s not allow our behavior to affirm its essential cynicism:

Privacy is what remains to protect us when power, respect, and compassion all fail.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

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