Last week, a story crossed my desk claiming that a quarter of human resources decision makers had rejected job candidates because of personal information found online. The survey was conducted by a business social network, so I was sceptical of the numbers and the methodology. But I understand why the survey got a receptive audience. It mines something a lot of people my age find troubling—the idea that those younger than us are blithely unaware of the consequences of putting details about their personal lives online.
The conventional wisdom is that, as those who grow up with the Net get older, they’ll pay the price for their youthful indiscretions—starting when they’re trying to get that first job and get Googled by the HR guy. And it’ll get worse from there. The members of Generation Exhibitionist will get older and wiser, but they’ll never escape from their boozy pictures and angry blog postings and other digital detritus. And eventually, they’ll realize that they spent their teen years embroidering virtual scarlet letters for themselves that can never be removed.
But is that really true?
There’s a huge sociological question here: Will the kids who grow up with the Net (let’s call them After Netters) become more like their elders (let’s call them Before Netters) as they take on full-time jobs, relationships, children and the other stuff of adult life? Having once craved attention, will they now shun it? Or, will they continue to live their lives in public, chronicling their ups and downs in ways their elders will find befuddling and disturbing (for a great take on this, read Emily Nussbaum’s Say Everything, from 12 February’s New York Magazine)?
Here’s betting on the latter. I think Before Netters such as me are the ones who seem out of step, leading lives that seem hermetic in comparison with those who grew up in cyberpublic. For better or worse, decrying what kids reveal on some MySpace successor will soon seem as painfully out of it as grumbling that teenage boys and girls shouldn’t use the telephone to chat unsupervised. Take whatever side you like in that debate, but it won’t matter—the world will change and render the argument moot.
Today, it’s pretty obvious that having the HR guy at your prospective employer find photos of college beer bongs isn’t a good idea. But that Before Net guy running HR isn’t going to be in his job forever. Before too long, he’ll give way to an After Netter with an old MySpace page of her own out there for anyone to find. Will she conclude drunken snapshots are a sign of bad judgement and hire someone else? I very much doubt it.
One of the biggest changes ushered in by the Net is the strange semi-celebrity it allows anyone with a Net connection to attain—MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and blogs all turn people into public figures in a way that was impossible not so long ago. As I’ve written before, this has left “regular” folks dealing with issues that used to be celebrity concerns, such as the overlap between public images and private lives. Similar to plenty of real celebrities, some people become object lessons in the perils of getting the two mixed up.
At the same time, there’s a lot of talk these days about how the Net lets teenagers play with questions of identity—a common defence of rowdy MySpace pages is that kids are experimenting with digital personae by posing as bad girls, tough guys and the like. Which is true, though that Latin plural sure makes posting drunken exhibitionist pictures on Web shots sound a lot more high-minded than it is.
But it’s not just teens and college kids who shift personae. During a single offline day, we may act very differently at work, at the bar after work, at a child’s parent-teacher conference and at the ball game—just as online we act differently on IM, work emails, home emails, blog posts and blog comments.
The difference is that we’re used to choosing which persona is appropriate to a given situation, and letting it carry the day. But an online search can reveal all our different faces at once, competing for search results. Google yourself, and you quickly realize that your public image is by and large out of control. Daily life in the offline world comes with a certain expectation of privacy, but the power of search has reversed the situation in the online world—it’s a public arena in which the smallest detail can, and will, be unearthed by the right search.
That can be a shock, even for Net veterans. I’m far from famous, but Google me and you’ll find Real Times and my thoughts on journalism—as well as evidence of my dorky hobbies (and the less-dorky hobbies of those with the misfortune to share my name), my wedding announcement and my Amazon wish list. And if Facebook had existed in the late 1980s, I guarantee you’d also find an old Facebook page with evidence of enough stupidity to establish beyond reasonable doubt that my judgement was frequently terrible.
What do you do when you realize how public your online life is? You could retreat into anonymity and try to ensure you leave no trace online—but increasingly, there’s something odd about a person who seems to leave no Google trace. You could try to scrub your online image, getting rid of the things you’d rather not have people see and/or taking steps to elevate what you do want people to see in search results. But that generally doesn’t work.
Or you could say “So what?” and accept that every aspect of your online life is out there for people to judge as they will. You could decide that if some people then judge you poorly based on one aspect of that online life, that’s their problem—a decision that will help you develop the thicker skin we all need in a changing world.
That’s the strategy the After Net kids have pursued—not consciously, but because it’s the only world they’ve ever known. Will it cost some of them jobs? Undoubtedly—but not for much longer. Because it’s their world view that will win the day as they assume the positions of authority vacated by people my age. The ones who’ll struggle? Here’s betting it’ll be Before Netters such as me, with our weirdly sterile Google lives that begin in middle age and our old-fashioned skittishness about online embarrassment and criticism.
(Write to firstname.lastname@example.org)