Live in Infamy

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Everyone may be famous for 15 minutes, but online those minutes can last a lifetime

A friend’s lens captures a tipsy top-shot revealing too much flesh. Or the camera catches the vacant stare of a bro’s pickled pupils, and the picture taker might mockingly pronounce, “I’ll save this when you run for office!” The joke, playfully cynical, drifts dangerously close to a cliff of paranoia. That much of what we digitally compose remains permanently archived, and that we only vaguely recognize the consequences of this, plays neatly into the narrative peddled by some in Silicon Valley—that privacy no longer exists. Zuckerberg’s Law, a convenient trend-as-truth whereby we volunteer evermore information about our intimate livings yearns to become an ethical imperative. The act of revealing rushes with unceasing momentum, unmooring our reservations of exposure. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written, “The fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed.”

By now we’ve been trained to record only those behaviors that reflect well on ourselves, lest our employers interpret our cocktail-crushing prowess the wrong way. But Facebook’s privacy settings are clumsy and easy to circumvent. Elsewhere, blog posts, life-tracking data, consumer preferences, and check-in beacons can just as easily be ripped from their context and misdirected to an unintended audience – and meanwhile, the social networks, publishing platforms and shopping hubs just keep multiplying. For those young people interested in running for office, this poses considerable danger.

To some, the Facebook timeline reads as an explicit chronology of illicit behavior. For most, these personality museums are masterfully curated, conveying an exuberance tamed by professionalism, edginess blunted by responsibility. While we are generally aware of the risks involved in divulging personal information, the popular conception is that our norms of exposure will change. Through mass-unveiling, salacious behavior will become bland.

Our society will learn to forgive youth-frozen-in-documentation. We will be more affirming of eccentric conduct and peculiar passions. Whereas candidate Clinton said that he didn’t inhale and he didn’t like it, Obama could say he inhaled often because that was the point. As our social mores relax to accommodate the radical honesty of blogs and the overshare impulse of Instagram, our aspiring candidates will be resilient to ad feminam attacks. This would be so precisely because we’d all be vulnerable to them, or at least familiar with them. (Few background checks are as rigorous as those for public servants, but the population at large will grow accustomed to informal and undisclosed reputation screenings in their personal and professional life.)

In Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self, the legal scholar reveals how much of our thinking on privacy is stifled by the language of authenticity and illusory control. She begins by reminding us that many of the corporate and political actors who favor strong protection for trade secrets share an economic interest with those who lobby for weaker privacy protection. What connects these two is the desire to commodify information and to harness “infrastructures that render individual activity transparent to third party observers.” Companies want to sell us targeted ads, but they don’t want to reveal how they construct their targeting system. Couched in favorable market language, we’re offered an enhanced, personalized experience, discounts and entertainment, social freedom – in exchange for our participation in an all-enveloping apparatus for market research. Still, we aren’t exactly sure what we’re giving up.

Meet Nick Bilton, lead writer for the New York Times’ Bits Blog and host of a now-famous dinner party last fall, at which several of his companions were prominent members of the Technorati. He and his dinner guests numbered 16 in all, but there were many uninvited persons that night who were privy to the soirée. As Bilton tells us, “a few days later, on a work-related call, someone else — who has never stepped foot in my house — told me how much he ‘just loved’ the lamps hanging above my kitchen table.” While the blogger was busy hosting, his guests were flexing their thumbs: a pair checked in on Foursquare, six tweets chirped away (presumably providing specifics of Bilton’s abode and bounty), seven photos were pasted on Path and six pics filtered through Instragram. Factoring in the total follower count of his company that evening, Bilton reckoned that these privileged details went out to a potential three million people. Aside from this being a self-aware #humblebrag, the post is parable: The sense of power we think we have to represent ourselves is diminished within and across networks.

This kind of exposure was innocent enough. But Cohen considers cases where the outcomes would be harmful. Contrary to the language and ethos of popular social networking sites, our identities are not fixed and singular. Our “authentic selves” or “essential attributes” cannot be articulated on a single profile like a Pokémon card. Thinkers have long disputed the idea of a static identity, since such a notion would ignore how we associate in different contexts, the way our speech changes depending on our speaking partner, how varied environments shape our growth, and all the ways in which we experiment and imagine, pretend and explore.

Individuals whose life stories buck standard social scripts—immigrants, LGBT youth and ethnic minorities—are more aware of this than most. Members of these groups often navigate several social realms, swapping different speech patterns and modes of behavior depending on the context. As the much-missed Dave Chappelle once said, all black Americans are bilingual, equipped with one language for the street and another for the job interview. This ability to develop and express one’s dynamism, and to control one’s appearance based on a particular audience, is stifled by pervasive exposure.

In 2010, 28-year-old Krystal Ball ran for a seat in Congress to represent Virginia’s conservative 1st district.  Pictures surfaced in early October of a younger Ball at a costume party with her then-husband. She was dressed in a Santa hat. Her ex’s makeshift costume consisted of fuzzy reindeer antlers and a red dildo for a nose (think: naughty Santa and Rudolph). Even though observers of Virginia politics identify Ball’s political inexperience as the campaign’s burden, as well as her running as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, the photographs dominated the news. Ball responded swiftly:

The tactic of painting female politicians as whores and as sluts is nothing new, and painting successful women in general in this way in order to delegitimize them and to denigrate them is nothing new. It’s a new twist on it though because obviously now as I’m one of the first of my generation in the Facebook age to step up and run for office I’m sort of the first one to have this particular thing happen to me but I certainly don’t think I’ll be the last.

Where many of us can see ourselves in those pictures of playful twentysomethings posing at a costume party, Ball’s political enemies attempted to rip her likeness from its context. They wanted Virginians in the 1st district to see her as an immoral and unserious ditz.

That many of this country’s lingering stereotypes play out on the political stage was not lost on Ball. In her responses during and since the campaign, she urges young women not to let this incident dissuade them from public service. But for every girl inspired by Ball’s pleas, how many more were discouraged by the whole episode? To argue that normalized exposure will endow our politics with greater forgiveness is to overlook how the identities of our society’s most vulnerable are mischaracterized, simplified and denied richness.

Witnessed in the abundance of cruel and negative advertisement during campaigns, and recounted to us in obnoxious detail in tell-alls like Confessions of a Political Hitman, opposition researchers and political adversaries will use any information they can find to convince voters to shun candidates. As Ball found out, the prevalence of social networks just means there is a larger ammunition cache.

Consider also this bizarre declaration from Facebook boy-king Mark Zuckerberg: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Or ponder this nugget from Google Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.”

In Schmidt and Zuckerberg’s vision, it would be inappropriate to account for Ball’s setting and circumstance. Last year, when two Texas undergraduates were outed to their unsympathetic parents through a Facebook privacy loophole, was that merely stark justice for their lack of integrity? The damage exacted by unwilling exposure will be unfair and uneven.

For young people interested in public service, it could be seen as best practice to simply stay off social networks. Keeping a low profile might shield their reputations from disrepute, against criticisms of the maximalist “let-it-all-hang-out” stance. But this too misses the point.

Not only does this mindset fail to acknowledge the entanglement of networked social platforms with face-to-face communication—as well as the ways ubiquitous surveillance captures information without one’s knowledge or consent—it also represents a perverse kind of incentivizing. Blogs, like older forms of publishing, encourage ideological experimentation. Subject-oriented networks, in the spirit of Twitter, traffic in the magnetism of shared interest. To discourage the use of these technologies could foster a political class that is calculating in character and predictable in policy. Hiding healthy duplicities or repressing radical dissent may encourage politically minded young people to be more like politicians.

The traits we associate with compelling leadership predate these technologies, of course. Networked communication will not somehow elevate our politics into a techno-utopia where strife no longer exists. This would be pushing what Cohen calls a “myth of digital transcendence.” Nor is it wise to espouse what Nathan Jurgenson calls fetishizing the IRL, where electronic forums and social media are nothing but libel and distraction as opposed to plain old conversation, which is always intelligent and pure. A superior view counts networked technologies as augmentations to our senses and capabilities: the wheel is to the feet as Tumblr to the tongue. To dissuade aspiring public servants from using these tools is to limit their rhetorical literacy and to hinder their capacity to forge solidarity.

Instead of accepting roles as economic cogs or users-of-gadgets, it’s possible to approach these technological issues as deliberative citizens. Along with Cohen, constructive naysayer Evgeny Morozov argues that just because certain trends are empirically obvious (increased social sharing, life-tracking) doesn’t mean that they are ethically defensible. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, we learn to grapple with gizmos as a philosopher might. With a skeptic’s insolence, Morozov drives us to construct defiant lines of inquiry like: It seems that regulators of privacy are basing their policy on the fact that young Americans, like all people, have undeveloped foresight.

Morozov highlights the unsavory ramifications of networked exposure and explains how current trends emerged from specific corporate philosophies and historical occurrences. He challenges the reader to push back against privacy’s “inevitable” collapse. Social network and data sharing policies that offer robust protections for individual privacy as well as the creative boundaries to nurture wild imagination can take root. Alexis Madrigal’s writing on Facebook and Google’s real name policy is just one way forward.

Madrigal contends that real name policies differ radically from our norms of speech. In a thought experiment where he yells “Down with the government!” while walking down a street, the only information that passersby are able to absorb is Madrigal’s physical appearance. There is little to link Madrigal’s words to Madrigal the writer. On Google and Facebook though, every utterance “is persistent and strongly attached to your real identity through your name.” While privacy settings allow us manage who sees what, statements made on these networks are still permanent and (theoretically) accessible to prying authority figures like prospective employers, insurance companies, consumer data harvesters, and of course, law enforcement. Even as Google and Facebook insist in their official language that their policies are in line with “real life,” Madrigal reveals how this is an absurd claim.

To defend their real name policy, Facebook has this to say in their guide to teens: “Facebook is a community where people use their real names and identities, so we’re all accountable for our actions. It’s against the Facebook Terms to lie about your name.” Google also alludes to the “real world” claim in their Google+ profile help page.

This thrust of transparency and accountability overlooks the instances when pseudonymity can protect against real harm: for dissenters, for journalists and for politically active young people. As these cultural giants cling to moralizing language, their policies deter the espousal of controversial opinions, association with those from whom you differ, and the ability to tailor speech for certain audiences. By deterring the use of multiple accounts or pseudonyms, these powerful corporations disincentivize the kind of creative thinking and expansive empathy that could be instilled in young political thinkers.

In The Future of Reputation, privacy scholar Daniel Solove mentions the rise of so-called reputation management firms. These companies manipulate the undesirable search results linked to their clients’ names. Admirable in theory, these businesses confuse a Google query with one’s reputation, as if the many contexts of your self can be corralled and beheld as the contents of a mason jar. The services that these outfits offer are also preventatively costly, harkening back to traditional arguments on the lack of access to political office—that a ticket to Washington must be paid with immense financial privilege. And with the general public, these services could render yet another class divide, hinging on one’s financial ability to manicure their own search engine results.

Solove maintains that the virtues of openness and transparency depend on situational context. In addition, the ease of accessibility and centralization of personal data—not just its existence on a network—can violate one’s privacy. With that in mind, altering the design of social media networks to create “nuanced barriers to information flow,” (different audiences and context) as well as default settings to err on the side of discretion rather than disclosure, would offer users a greater control.

Others have argued for the use of temporary files, pictures and posts that expire after a designated time, in the style of Snapchat. The lack of permanence presumably frees us from the everlasting threat of revelation. (This, of course, raises its own ethical dilemmas of the Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind variety.)

Lastly, as Pro Publica reports, the industry of consumer data harvesting is bound only by nebulous rules. Some information like credit history and medical records is protected, but other forms of consumer data—the kind provided by Facebook, LinkedIn and WordPress activity—are not. Social media networks and consumer data reapers are not bound to provide straightforward visualizations of the information they hold, nor do they offer us ways of controlling (and preventing) how that material is collected and resold.

Even before the prevalence of smartphones, the harsh light of publicity posed a significant barrier to public life. Scrutiny is hard to stomach. And while the current paradigm of unbridled expression may grant us some resilience--a thicker skin, a more understanding electorate—none of us is fully immune to the ramifications of exposure.

This isn’t about what kinds of young people will survive scandals, but rather, who will choose to run despite all the network-enabled scandal-mongering. If we allow the boundaries of privacy to shrink, only the most anodyne of political personalities will emerge. To concede to Zuckerberg’s self-conscious “Truman Show” is to needlessly wither our talent pool.

This shriveled set of judges with too-straight-an-edge and senators with too-malleable-a-spine marks us all—collectively. But these same shifting criteria can alter our own perceived trustworthiness and employability—individually. With the help of Bain & Company and an ominous report they coauthored, “Personal Data: The Emergence of A New Asset Class,” we’ve blithely been told who stands to benefit from viewing seclusion and concealment as commodities: trackers, taggers, data miners, businesses who observe our health through browsing history, and the consumer companies who can infer our credit score. Identity aggregators and the financial institutions that salivate over their products believe personal data is the new oil. Search engines and the horde of advertisers want to convince us that offering up artifacts of exposure is the future currency. If we yield to this market paradigm though, it’s not a new data-rich economy we’re buying into, but a diminished understanding of self-worth and the space that’s needed to shape it.