Living online can be confusing. Who we are may depend on the venue or medium. For instance, a person’s participation in forums, Facebook (and other social network) posts, email and blogs are likely to vary widely as he or she reaches out to different audiences. The choice of words and topics, the opinions expressed and the ways we represent ourselves change according to whether we are communicating with family, friends, colleagues, customers or the world at large.
This isn’t new and it isn’t necessarily hypocritical. Our private lives usually differ from our public lives, driven by our trust in others, etiquette and conventions. And the interests of different audience might be dramatically different. Our roles (father, son, writer, scientist, friend, customer, etc.) may be restricted.
However, the online world makes managing our many identities difficult. Most people, for instance, do not use profanity in front of customers, even though they may do so with friends. But it is easy to use inappropriate language online because when you are not face-to-face, you don’t have visual cues (the person’s face, the place) that help you keep straight “who” you are during a conversation. Using the right words can become even more difficult for people who hold simultaneous chats. Imagine how difficult it is for someone to shift roles when he or she conducts chats with a son, a mother, a boss and a colleague at the same time.
In addition, comments, pictures, videos and other communications can easily be aggregated thanks to search engines. Your combined online identities, even if all the bits are from you and not a namesake, is likely to be distorted or even unrecognizable. This blended identity may follow a person for years and reach into real life in unexpected ways. In the US, elementary teachers have lost their jobs thanks to social network pictures or comments. College students are routinely warned that prospective employers will “Google” them and make decisions based in part on what they find. And the concept of the “blind date” — wherein two people matched up by mutual friends see each other for the first time at the appointed meeting place — seems antiquated. They are likely to have complete profiles of each other long before they get together.
This new world only gets more problematic as our online footprints increase and the number of identities proliferate. Can we meet the challenge? It seems that several new helps are needed.
Identity management — This needs to go beyond the kind of support of passwords and authentication we have today. We need tools or services that help us do what Hollywood did in the star system in terms of creating useful images, while keeping our different personas sorted out. And somehow we need to keep our sanity, too.
Automated warnings — Do we really want to push the send or publish button? With rising consequences for each digital communication, it would be helpful to have some real-time advice.
Profile ownership — Ultimately, we should have more control over our online identities. Today, the profiles created by advertisers and marketers are generally invisible to us. We need to make a special effort to fix errors in our credit ratings. We have no say in what comes up in search and no way of distinguishing ourselves from namesakes.
How we’ll make these fixes isn’t clear, but it deserves public discussion and attention. Our identities and reputations help determine our access to people, the jobs we get, the communities we are a part of and how we perceive ourselves. We face revolutionary changes in how both our identities and reputations are developed and maintained, and it is time we took some control.