The Internet and social networks are making us G-rated censors of ourselves [bad, but I get it]

Little Bear
This fuzzy bear could be our undoing.{e u g e n e} / Foter

I’ve been thinking about the implications of online identities a bit more than usual since I’ve begun a job hunt in earnest (my resume), but reading this piece on Mashable about one’s Web presence becoming the new form of the resume made my ruminations race into focus.

Here’s a pair of extraordinarily frightening sentences from the article:

“Whatever Google turns up will determine your fate. Every Twitter message, Facebook status and Linkedin update is a reflection of one’s personality, capabilities and priorities.”

The sentences are terrifying because they — as frustrating as it is — contain truth.

I know, I know. My initial reaction is this: Are you kidding me? I’m much more than all of that. Of course I am. Of course you are. Of course we are. Here’s why:

  • What I said years ago or even hours ago does not necessarily reflect who I am now or who I want to be in the future.
  • Riffing on that, I find that who and what people want to be in the future is just as important as who and what they have been in the past. You can’t always get that from mediated slivers of moments in time.
  • There is a good chance what I release on the Web is a spontaneous act of sharing and expression, not a calculated step in a long dance of building a goal-oriented online identity.
  • I may have meant something that was completely lost due to the limits of the communication medium. Example: subtle sarcasm.
  • The representation of reality is not reality. Let’s say that again so you think about it: the representation of reality is not reality. In today’s world, people are actually starting to believe that the Media World is the Real World, but it’s not. A photograph of someone … is not the person. Or put it this way: a photo on Facebook of someone doing a keg stand does not make him or her a drunk, a party animal, irresponsible or incapable of performing a job. It makes him or her a person who who was photographed doing a keg stand, and then had that photo shared, or chose to share it. Even if you concede that photos are a fair depiction of an aspect of a person, it’s still just that: an aspect. Are we all to be single-minded, G-rated drones who never commit the most minor of offenses?
  • As a journalist, it is unimaginable to write a profile of a subject based solely upon what he or she posted online. You have to talk to the person. Ask questions. Give and take. And I don’t mean over e-mail. I mean in real life, face to face. Why? Because something happens there. The physical dimension of our identity is awfully easy to ignore nowadays, but I still find it one of the most important aspects of who we are. I’d even go as far to say that identity is not some island of “me” but something that gets made constantly by physical interactions with others, with some interactions (but not all) leaving long-term or permanent infrastructural elements that contain and project our concept of self.
  • I may have clicked the wrong button. Seriously. I have like 150 buttons to send things to different places.

But for someone in a rush to make a hire, the above sounds like “blah blah blah.” Everyone can Google you, so everyone will. It becomes a “what if” scenario. For example, the HR person might be concerned about the CEO’s judgment of him if the CEO Googles the job candidate. “Why did you OK this person?” Ms. CEO asks Mr. HR. “Look at this photo!”

For people making decisions, potential trouble of any sort is a reason to avoid a candidate. No one will give the benefit of the doubt. No one will take the time to know you; who has the time? No one will delve into the details of the context surrounding that little bit of information you chose to share.

In many ways, the Internet has made the entire world like one big office, and like every office, gossip and politics runs through it. Beware becoming the person being talked about at the water cooler. Ouch.

On the other hand, I bet a lot of people don’t care as long as you do your job well.

And there is nothing new about this. It’s an old struggle between Inner Unjudged Self and Socialized Judged Self. We just have a whole new battleground — the globally shared playground of the Internet — on which to pursue the conflict. From my memory of the movie about Howard Stern, I believe he went through a similar thing when it came to deciding what to do with his radio career. Heck, publicly releasing your IUS, should you have one, might prove beneficial in ways you never imagined.

For me, for good or ill, I’m leaning toward a G-rated Web presence, at least on public forums. I do this because I expect no mercy from anyone perusing information about me online. Facebook? I have that thing locked down tight. LinkedIn? Resume and links to interesting articles (and if they’re offensive, I add explainer text), at the most. Twitter? Just links, and I am even careful about commentary because expressing opinions can come back to haunt you as a journalist (not that I agree with this…). This Web site? Pretty tame.

I do this because I feel it’s safer to save more delicate topics for more personal settings.

The thing is, I think something is happening that is not necessarily good. Self-censor long enough and you don’t even realize you’re doing it after a while. You start to think the world is a thing full of pretties and fluffies, and start to think that to be anything other than pretty and fluffy is to be lacking in value.

Of course, the Internet is far, far from G-rated. It provides, shall we say, the most extraordinary range of content.

In some ways, I’m writing about a hypothetical situation, or writing to an audience of people who are now building public online identities with the goal of protecting themselves from judgment rather than spontaneously sharing and expressing themselves.

My point, then, to these folks: To have only a G-rated mindset determining the manner in which people publicly use the most revolutionary communication medium in existence will be a detriment to our societies. It’s wrong. Our public selves are just as important as our private selves; both move humans forward. To restrain one so broadly will dampen essential, critical faculties.

We need dirt. That’s where things take root, so they can reach blue skies and sunlight.

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