IN his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell imagined a world where Big Brother subjected citizens to 24-hour surveillance, where people's thoughts were monitored to maintain social control.
What would Orwell think of 2011; the many ways we willingly detail the minutiae of our lives and post it on the Internet to share with friends, peers, colleagues, future employers, total strangers and, sometimes, the police?
According to Peter Chow-White, an SFU communications professor, the rise of social media is one of the most important developments over the past five years. He calls it the shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0.
"Web 1.0 was seen as an incredible source of information where everybody could go online and have access. But it wasn't as easy for everyday people to put content up. Web 2.0 is the shift to social media. First with Myspace, then Facebook then a whole clutter of them, it became much easier for the everyday person to post information. And at first it seemed great. It seemed like a whole, brave new world in that sense."
It does seem harmless. On Facebook, you post a comment about your vacation; on Twitter, you link to your latest work project; you share photos of your friends and family on Flickr; and you write an elegant ode to your breakfast -with video! - on Tumblr or your own blog. There is no limit on the ways you can over-share on the Internet.
The trouble, however, comes when your thoughts, information or photos slip from your grasp, and are no longer under your own control.
In many cases, that happens as soon as you post them online, said Chow-White.
"With Facebook, whatever content you put up, you lose control of it. They own it. They can do whatever they want with it, they can license it out to others."
While that loss of control might be unsettling to some, it's not alarming. Having ads targeted to their likes and dislikes, music and book selections made just for them, seems at worst, like a minor annoyance.
"It's a trade-off. We trade off a certain element of privacy in order to be able to share and contact and communicate with our friends, or create a business profile," said Chow-White. He noted, however, that all of that information will be accessible for years. As well as being mined for advertising, your data can be compiled by third parties who, for example, supply companies with digital profiles of prospective employees.
That's when your online conduct may come back to haunt you.
Inappropriate comments that might have been casually dismissed as a joke when made between colleagues a decade ago are not as innocuous on Twitter.
Language that makes your Facebook friends laugh might not get a chuckle from a future employer.
Photos posted by a friend from a drunken weekend might not paint you in the most flattering light for a prospective date.
If you think your privacy settings are properly adjusted to keep prying eyes away, you might want to double-check that.
Last May, three software developers in San Francisco created Openbook (youropenbook. org), a Facebook-specific search engine that displays status updates of users who have not made them private. The site is both a parody of Facebook and an internet privacy advocacy website. Though the founders no longer maintain it, Openbook is still up and running.
As an example, a search for the phrase "I hate my boss" turns up hundreds of public status updates containing those four words. Anyone can read them, not just their "friends." It's not likely that all of these Facebook users are intentionally castigating their employers; and if they're unaware that their thoughts are available for anyone to read, it seems they're not alone. According to a June 2010 survey from Consumer Reports "in one of four households with a Facebook account, users weren't aware of or didn't choose to use the service's privacy controls."
The statistic was presented in a CNN column about the behavior of Facebook's more than 750 million users, written by Pete Cashmore - the founder of news blog Mashable.
He pointed out several other ways that Facebook behaviour could affect real relationships and opinions. He pointed to one study that found 85 per cent of respondents had been annoyed by their Facebook friends. Of these annoyances, the most cited was "complaining all the time" (63 per cent), "sharing unsolicited political views" (42 per cent) and "bragging about seemingly perfect lives" (32 per cent).
Yet another study found that 47 per cent of Facebook users have swear words on their walls, with these profanities being posted by a friend 56 per cent of the time.
Not surprisingly, the most common profanity is the "F-word."
Even something as seemingly unimportant as habitually poor grammar and spelling could one day have an impact on education, opportunities and relationships.
"When you are able to present yourself faceto-face you have control, to a certain extent, over how people perceive you; you can manage the impression that people have of you," said Chow-White. "But when your information goes online, it can be collected in many different ways, through a Google search, or through a dossier from a company or looking through your friends on Facebook, then the story of who you are is left up to a lot of different interpretations."
It's a digital shadow that follows you for years to come.
. . .
Vancouver journalist Vanessa (not her real name) knows firsthand the frustration of dragging around a distorted digital shadow.
Before attending journalism school she was a professional dancer and performer; in 2005 that career included a run with a queer burlesque troupe that was subsequently filmed for a documentary. In 2008, the film was accepted for a local film festival, and today, if you Google Vanessa's real name the listing for the film is the third search result that appears. Click on the hyperlink and the film's synopsis appears, along with a photo of Vanessa in drag.
"It was filmed in 2005. That was pre-Twitter, it was even early Facebook. You would never think this obscure film would come back and show up online six years later.
"It's not that it's out there that bothers me. I have a dance background, it makes sense that I've been in performances of all kinds, including queer performance art. What bothers me is that it's No. 3 on Google, above so many things I have worked so hard on, cover stories I've written. You can't find the documentary I made for the CBC, but this is one of the first things you see about me."
When a friend recently tried to set her up on a blind date, the potential date Googled her first. He never called.
"It's not blind dates I'm concerned about though," said Vanessa. "If they have a problem with it, they're probably not someone I would want to date anyway. But I do worry about potential employers. It gives a distorted digital picture of who I am. I hope a potential journalism employer would see all the other things I've done - my entire resume is basically online - and realize that's not relevant. But still, it derails the conversation I'd want to have in a professional setting."
Now Vanessa is taking steps to limit the film's appearance in her search results. She has already contacted the film festival once, and plans to do so again. Then she may have to figure out the best way to optimize search results for other content she is attached to. But it's a lot of work.
"It's annoying as hell," she said.
. . .
The information we lob out onto the great online poses one set of complex sociological questions. But when someone else takes control of your digital reputation, things can take a profound turn for the malicious.
Then, you can't even call it a digital shadow, says Roger McConchie, a North Vancouver lawyer who specializes in defamation.
"A shadow is something you create standing between the sun and the surface the shadow falls on," he pointed out. "It's going to be a reasonable outline of you. If you're the one out there, putting your information up on Facebook or up on the Internet or allowing yourself to be photographed without your underclothes on, that's something you can control, to some degree."
Worse though, is when others create that digital reputation for you, and it's a false one.
"Then I guess you would call it a doppelganger, which may or may not be any sort of reflection or shadow of you," he said.
McConchie was a partner at a downtown law firm for 25 years. Wanting to scale back in 2004, he set up a boutique practice to focus exclusively on privacy and defamation. He planned to work half days and have more time for fishing. It didn't work out that way.
"I knew the Internet was important. But I had no idea that it would become, each year, geometrically, beyond anything I could have conceived of. If I wanted to expand it would be easy for me to have a 10-or 15-lawyer firm by now. We just don't do every case that comes our way."
According to McConchie, in the pre-Internet age, defamation plaintiffs tended to be public figures. Often his advice to them was to wait a month or two and see if the issue went away.
"The dimensions of the practice have changed entirely. It means that people can no longer sit back and say, 'This shall pass.' " Now, one malicious blog article is going to be picked up by other bloggers and cut and pasted and repeated. Over time, if something isn't contradicted or dealt with it's taken as truth."
An even bigger shift is in the plaintiffs themselves. It's no longer just public figures fighting for their reputations.
"Now there are whole categories of people who might never had reason to worry about being libelled who are now victimized by false information on the Internet which sits out there and either prejudices their business or careers."
He pointed out that people now routinely Google their friends, potential business acquaintances, professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, veterinarians, "you name it."
"You get a search report with clips, snippets of information. If that information is derogatory, or critical, or libellous . . . a healthy percentage of people who were thinking of dealing with that professional may not even drill down to the hyperlink to see what the underlying context or information is. People are inclined to avoid risk. They will probably go on to deal with another company."
. . .
Go ahead, it's not like you never have. In fact, beyond vanity, experts say keeping track of what's being said about you online is critically important.
It's a whole new world out there. Ten years ago, individuals and companies didn't have to give a thought to their online reputation. Now, it's a booming business, with online services available to maintain your digital reputation, and lawyers specializing in "virtual scrubbing."
"As time goes by, people becoming increasingly vigilant to protect their reputation," said McConchie. "Most people are aware that there are risks on the Internet."
Professionals are fast understanding the value in having and maintaining a positive digital reputation.
Perhaps most at risk are young people.
"Younger generations have been learning to live online," said Chow-White. "Being in a social network online is no different to them than living in a social network offline, and to them the risks are not particularly known. They haven't had to go for a job, try and get a mortgage, rent a place, it doesn't seem to be a problem. The lines between online and offline are incredibly blurred."
Nowhere was that more evident than during the Stanley Cup riot.
"That was an intense event that brought a lot of these issues to the fore," said Chow-White. "People lost jobs, people lost scholarships, people lost sponsorships. That was a very high cost for increasingly living online."
Even more than the impact on the rioters' lives now - which many observers will argue is well-deserved - it's difficult to say how long their actions on June 15 will live on in infamy online.
Will it still pop up when they go to apply for a job in 10 years? In 15 years?
"I bet it will," said Chow-White.
The lessons in all of this are obvious. Be careful what you put online. Be careful what you do in front of cameras and video cameras. "Then you've done what you can to minimize the impact on your future," said McConchie.
Keep an eye on what's out there, and what's being said about you.
"It's a lot of work," said Chow-White. "We've come to this place where we have to manage ourselves in our everyday lives and we also have to manage ourselves online. As you grow up you're not taught that you have to manage your online identity, but now . . . maybe we'll have to."
No mind control needed. Big Brother would be pleased.
© Copyright 2013