Monday, September 6, 2010

Exhibitionism, or Self-Expression?



In privacy circles, we all try to make sure that people are sensitive about what they post online. I remember a chat I had with a journalist at SFGate.com back in 2007 :

"Before posting anything online, Peter Fleischer asks himself: Is this something I want to make public forever? ...

he thinks a lot about the implications of sharing information with the world. As a result, in his private life, he takes a cautious approach...

But he's uncomfortable sharing photos online..."


I generally advise people not to post things publicly without thinking about whether they're likely to regret having posted it. I also advise people not to post anything about other people (like pictures or videos), unless those people agreed to have it posted. But that doesn't mean that I think people should stop posting stuff about themselves and their friends online. In fact, I'm wildly enthusiastic about these social platforms that empower people to publish things about themselves and their friends to the world. The interesting risk-debate is about stuff in a gray zone, where one person's self-expression is another person's exhibitionism. This sort of gets summed up as a question that helps kids understand the consequences of posting things online: "even if you think this photo/video etc is cool, what will a future employer think about it when you start looking for a job?"

Digital natives are creating a part of their identity online. What they publish, or don't publish, is a self-created, highly edited version of their "identity" that they'd like to project. Digital natives are used to seeing lots of stuff about themselves and their friends online. The older generation isn't. So, rather than a technology clash, this strikes me more as a classic generational clash. The older generation warns the younger generation about putting too much of themselves out there, because, well, they never did, didn't have the opportunity, and no one in their generation did either. Perhaps that's why some people are calling the younger crowd Generation Xhibitionists.

Curiously, every time I've done an image search on my own name (and hey, regular "vanity" searches on your own name are an essential part of privacy hygiene, to know what's out there about yourself), I see a highly-ranked image search result of a guy in a bathing suit...who isn't me. Since I'm a believer in the principle that the best answer to bad speech (or bad content) is to confront it with better content, I figure I might as well post a picture of myself in a bathing suit too. The other guy is younger and better-looking, but hey, at least this is me. And to all those people who say I'm never willing to share anything personal online, well, call me Gen X.

3 comments:

P-Air said...

Hi, only just ran into your blog and am pleased to read how you think through the various issues. Happy to see that despite some of the negative hype about Google's general attitudes towards privacy, the people working there have concerns about these issues like every one else.

WRT your comments on sharing, I had a debate last night with a dear friend about this very issue. However, where he debated in effect a similar position to yours (be comfortable about what you're going to post), he was viewing it as an issue for his children (currently 9 and 13 yrs old). He raised the typical and oft repeated anecdotes about college admissions doing online searches on candidates and employers making hiring decisions.

My contention however is that the amount of data being put out there will become prohibitive for people to search against. As you noted, first you have to determine if the data you are reviewing is about the candidate that you're considering. Then you have to determine the validity of the data and its source.

Collaborative filtering and network analysis tools and services are gaining ground in these areas, and are being applied to selection process for various activities. Of course, behavioral or interest-based ad targeting has been at the forefront of this (ie. Amazon's "people who bought this also bought that"). However, as you might be aware, when governments try to segment terrorists from non-terrorists, they tend bring more and different data sets to bear. For example, they might apply clustering around credit records, travel logs, transaction records, and other data sets in order to come up with something like, "people who bought this and flew to these places are more likely to be terrorists".

From the average citizen's standpoint however, we don't actually know the recipe of data and assumptions being made to come up with this lens. Now, if we go back to my university or employer examples, when can imagine a near future where employers (who are already making use of people's credit records) start to combine data sets to determine whether an employment prospect is suitable for their company. That employee won't know the model against which they are being evaluated.

Now in a world where kids will make mistakes, and mistakes won't disappear, then one can argue that mistakes are part of what makes us human. One could also argue that a college kid that screws up his credit while in college, learns a valuable lesson which may make her more vigilant in the future about paying bills on time. Employers may being to understand this and derive similar conclusions which they will build into their models.

Hence, those kids who worried about not having anything negative about themselves appear any where, might actually be the ones at a disadvantage. But the problem is no one will really ever know. Unless the models are made public, which is not likely (unless the current laws change), the best we can do is live our lives in a way that is respectful to others and society in general, accept our mistakes, and go with the flow.

In a world where transparency rules, then trying to be abnormally good makes one less human and hence less desirable. Almost like the lack of having made any mistakes brings suspicion on that person that they're either gaming the system or likely to be more destructive in the future. This actually reminds me of a fraternity brother who didn't drink while we were in college, he got married right after graduation but within 5 yrs was divorced and an alcoholic. Here he missed out on the best days to get that out of his system, but instead he chose to keep it bottled up and it cost him more dearly as a result.

Sorry for the long post, but I thought it worth sharing a position on how things might change/evolve in the future.

P-Air said...

WRT your comments on sharing, I had a debate last night with a dear friend about this very issue. However, where he debated in effect a similar position to yours (be comfortable about what you're going to post), he was viewing it as an issue for his children (currently 9 and 13 yrs old). He raised the typical and oft repeated anecdotes about college admissions doing online searches on candidates and employers making hiring decisions.

My contention however is that the amount of data being put out there will become prohibitive for people to search against. As you noted, first you have to determine if the data you are reviewing is about the candidate that you're considering. Then you have to determine the validity of the data and its source.

Collaborative filtering and network analysis tools and services are gaining ground in these areas, and are being applied to selection process for various activities. Of course, behavioral or interest-based ad targeting has been at the forefront of this (ie. Amazon's "people who bought this also bought that"). However, as you might be aware, when governments try to segment terrorists from non-terrorists, they tend bring more and different data sets to bear. For example, they might apply clustering around credit records, travel logs, transaction records, and other data sets in order to come up with something like, "people who bought this and flew to these places are more likely to be terrorists".

From the average citizen's standpoint however, we don't actually know the recipe of data and assumptions being made to come up with this lens. Now, if we go back to my university or employer examples, when can imagine a near future where employers (who are already making use of people's credit records) start to combine data sets to determine whether an employment prospect is suitable for their company. That employee won't know the model against which they are being evaluated.

Now in a world where kids will make mistakes, and mistakes won't disappear, then one can argue that mistakes are part of what makes us human. One could also argue that a college kid that screws up his credit while in college, learns a valuable lesson which may make her more vigilant in the future about paying bills on time. Employers may being to understand this and derive similar conclusions which they will build into their models.

Hence, those kids who worried about not having anything negative about themselves appear any where, might actually be the ones at a disadvantage. But the problem is no one will really ever know. Unless the models are made public, which is not likely (unless the current laws change), the best we can do is live our lives in a way that is respectful to others and society in general, accept our mistakes, and go with the flow.

In a world where transparency rules, then trying to be abnormally good makes one less human and hence less desirable. Almost like the lack of having made any mistakes brings suspicion on that person that they're either gaming the system or likely to be more destructive in the future. This actually reminds me of a fraternity brother who didn't drink while we were in college, he got married right after graduation but within 5 yrs was divorced and an alcoholic. Here he missed out on the best days to get that out of his system, but instead he chose to keep it bottled up and it cost him more dearly as a result.

Sorry for the long post, but I thought it worth sharing a position on how things might change/evolve in the future.

P-Air said...

Hi, only just ran into your blog and am pleased to read how you think through the various issues. Happy to see that despite some of the negative hype about Google's general attitudes towards privacy, the people working there have concerns about these issues like every one else.

WRT your comments on sharing, I had a debate last night with a dear friend about this very issue. However, where he debated in effect a similar position to yours (be comfortable about what you're going to post), he was viewing it as an issue for his children (currently 9 and 13 yrs old). He raised the typical and oft repeated anecdotes about college admissions doing online searches on candidates and employers making hiring decisions.

My contention however is that the amount of data being put out there will become prohibitive for people to search against. As you noted, first you have to determine if the data you are reviewing is about the candidate that you're considering. Then you have to determine the validity of the data and its source.

Collaborative filtering and network analysis tools and services are gaining ground in these areas, and are being applied to selection process for various activities. Of course, behavioral or interest-based ad targeting has been at the forefront of this (ie. Amazon's "people who bought this also bought that"). However, as you might be aware, when governments try to segment terrorists from non-terrorists, they tend bring more and different data sets to bear. For example, they might apply clustering around credit records, travel logs, transaction records, and other data sets in order to come up with something like, "people who bought this and flew to these places are more likely to be terrorists".

From the average citizen's standpoint however, we don't actually know the recipe of data and assumptions being made to come up with this lens. Now, if we go back to my university or employer examples, when can imagine a near future where employers (who are already making use of people's credit records) start to combine data sets to determine whether an employment prospect is suitable for their company. That employee won't know the model against which they are being evaluated.

Now in a world where kids will make mistakes, and mistakes won't disappear, then one can argue that mistakes are part of what makes us human. One could also argue that a college kid that screws up his credit while in college, learns a valuable lesson which may make her more vigilant in the future about paying bills on time. Employers may being to understand this and derive similar conclusions which they will build into their models.

Hence, those kids who worried about not having anything negative about themselves appear any where, might actually be the ones at a disadvantage. But the problem is no one will really ever know. Unless the models are made public, which is not likely (unless the current laws change), the best we can do is live our lives in a way that is respectful to others and society in general, accept our mistakes, and go with the flow.

In a world where transparency rules, then trying to be abnormally good makes one less human and hence less desirable. Almost like the lack of having made any mistakes brings suspicion on that person that they're either gaming the system or likely to be more destructive in the future. This actually reminds me of a fraternity brother who didn't drink while we were in college, he got married right after graduation but within 5 yrs was divorced and an alcoholic. Here he missed out on the best days to get that out of his system, but instead he chose to keep it bottled up and it cost him more dearly as a result.

Sorry for the long post, but I thought it worth sharing a position on how things might change/evolve in the future.