I used to be quite proud of my ability to compartmentalize the public and private parts of my life. I attributed it to my nature as a Gemini. But as the whole gets split more and more (what I share with friends vs. family vs. co-workers vs. clients), even I am starting to feel a little overwhelmed.
In danah boyd’s keynote about Privacy and Publicity, she spoke about the conundrum of no longer being able to separate your private and public selves. Among her examples was that of the teacher on Facebook: things that might be acceptable when with your friends (drinking, cursing), might not be so acceptable in the presence of your students or their parents. We now all must WORK at keeping our lives compartmentalized. So be careful before you hit “Accept” on that Friend request.
But it’s not just the decisions you make today. It’s how they’re used 3 weeks, 3 months or 3 years from now. Jaron Lanier spoke about the difficulty of being a young person who has not developed a social existence outside of the Web. Can you ever escape your awkward teenage self if it’s memorialized online?
In a panel discussion about Hunch.com and the increasing integration of personal data across web sites, an audience member in her 30s wondered a similar thing from a different standpoint: My tastes are different at 35 than they were at 16. Will the Web show an accurate reflection of me? Even if it has been tracking me all along, am I not more than a sum of my searches?
Right now, you’re not. As a result of client-related searches that I’ve made at work and the fact that our servers are located in Pittsburgh, I get served onlie ad content based on the preferences of a 45-year-old Pittsburgh resident who worries about whitening her teeth and is in the process of trying to find a college for her child, instead of the 37-year-old, DC-area, non-tooth-whitening DINK that I am.
But, presumably, the algorithms get better and the information gets connected across more sites and — as long as I keep going online — the Web will eventually have an almost perfect picture of me. And not just demographics and purchase behavior, but hopes, fears and real-time geolocation.
Of course, that information can be used for good (providing me with life-changing recommendations that I never would have come across otherwise) or evil (when my insurance company denies me coverage because of that unfortunate crack-pipe tweet). Or is that any more evil than what insurance companies have always done? The statistics are just a lot more personal now.
Perhaps Warhol was only slightly off. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, we all get to be 15% famous — not enough to be chased by paparazzi, but enough to be ensured that we’ll never apply for a job without them bringing up that 5th grade trip to the principal’s office. Digitally, my permanent record seems a lot more permanent — and a lot more accessible.
So perhaps I’ll put that ability to compartmentalize to good use. I’ll embrace my Northern quasi-twin. How difficult can it be? Maybe I’ll even start a Facebook page for her.