Personal, Not Private

Part I: Silence

About a week ago, there was a news story about two Massachusetts women who had recently made a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. In front of a sign that read “Silence and Respect,” one – Lindsey Stone – had posed with an open mouth (pantomiming yelling), and with an extended middle finger. It might not exactly have been the height of comedy, but the intention was obvious. Unfortunately for Stone, the story proceeded in a predictable fashion. She posted the photograph on Facebook. It somehow went viral. And instead of the ‘likes’ she might have expected, the internet lost its collective mind over what many perceived to be brazen disrespect for the nation’s veterans. Her employers caught hold of the controversy, and both Stone and her friend (Jamie Schuh) were subsequently fired.

The unexpected intrusion of online activity into an individual’s ‘real’ life has become a tale as old as (internet) time. You hear about how the Secret Service endlessly confronts an array of racists who share with the world their specific plans for the president in 140 characters or less. Every so often, a fast-food employee is dismissed after documenting him or herself committing unspeakable acts to restaurant ingredients. Such phenomena have become regular features of the 24-hour news cycle. Yet, unlike the aforementioned, not all cases are so clear-cut, with much ambiguity regarding proper classification of the ‘crime’ as such. Consider Stone and Schuh, who appeared to be engaged in nothing but ill-conceived foolishness.* Their case brings to mind far more innocuous examples.

*The punishment seemed especially harsh for Schuh, who didn’t even get to be on-camera.

Remove the setting for a moment. The concept of Stone and Schuh’s picture immediately becomes unremarkable. Yes, the picture is perhaps a bit crude, but the pose is clearly self-aware and somewhat cute, more pandering than it is rebellious, obviously done with a wink and a nod. It’s the equivalent of someone making grass angels in front of a “keep off grass” sign, or, speaking from personal experience, someone taking a few exaggerated steps past a “do not go beyond this point” sign. Overall, it’s utterly indistinguishable from tens of thousands of pictures that exist on a myriad of social network sites. Now re-insert the setting. The only difference is that the women are behaving inappropriately, and might be jackasses.*

*Think about the ‘keep off grass’ sign. You see it? I want you to picture it. Now imagine it’s white in front of the Holocaust Museum.**

** To draw a parallel, posing on the grass wouldn’t make anyone anti-Semitic. …Though I suppose the cemetery sign directly relates to the veterans in a way the grass sign wouldn’t.

Given the severity of the public response then, as well as the disconnect between non-crime and punishment, there are a myriad of lessons to be gleaned from the Stone and Schuh case. The setting calls into question whether the commendable reverence the public has for veterans has become a blind adoration of the culture. The timeframe in which the events took place underscores the rapidity with which anonymity can be lost. The decisive reaction by the employer demonstrates the oft-blurry line between personal time and company time (overriding the blanket defense of the First Amendment). And the ultimate fate of the women suggests the power of social media often manifests as little more than mob mentality. But perhaps the most important takeaway is the simplest one: Nothing on the internet is private.

Part II: Respect

I’ve always been paranoid about my internet persona. It may seem counter-intuitive, given the considerable size of my digital footprint.* But the fact that I partake in a spectrum of online activity does not mean that I stand oblivious to the consequences of that participation. It’s an uneasy, often contradictory dynamic partially captured by Mike Birbiglia’s humorous notion of a “Secret Public Journal.” Everything I share is intensely personal, sometimes even private, but meant for some public consumption – with varying definitions of that ‘public.’. Personally, I’m self-conscious enough to constantly revisit the issue. I treat the information I share as infinitely permeable. And to the degree that I can, I refuse to cede complete control over my posted content.

*Immature comment here

There are several explanations for my revisionist approach to the internet. Part of it derives from my obsessive compulsive nature, as when I edit posts for overlooked mistakes, or remove links for items that have become inaccessible. Some probably stems from my tremendous insecurity: I rework quips for presumably greater effect, and regularly take down items that garner no immediate response. I’m also, strangely enough, a fairly private person, and thus revisit my decisions to share (or overshare) on a consistent basis. But what intertwines all of the above is the way I’ve come to see the internet, and in particular, the way I’ve come to see the nature of social media.

Facebook – perhaps the most ubiquitous platform – epitomizes the fundamental contradiction of social media, at least from my perspective. That is, it serves as an exhaustive and everlasting archive even as it centers on a culture of instant reaction. It stands as a monument of permanence while being comprised of distinctly transient parts. Essentially, it strives to be a yearbook for all of life – every moment, every thought, every memory, as fueled by a defining conglomerate of notions from narcissism to nostalgia to interconnectivity and everything else.  The result is indeed something comprehensive. But it is also something that is unedited and unpolished by nature.

In maintaining control over my content, and by extension my online persona, I treat social media as a traditional bounded volume, a time capsule of sorts – representative but selective, with proper and differential sentimentality and respect afforded its various aspects. My Facebook is chock-full of harmless entertainment; my Twitter account serves as testing grounds for comedic material; my Instagram and Picasa albums essentially portfolios for amateur photography. I reserve sincerity for private messages and emails, if at all. Yes, I have blogged extensively in the past, but none of that material can be found anywhere but on my hard drive now.* I shared that content when I wanted to, but they’re no longer relevant in my eyes, and thus no longer meant for public consumption. I’ve edited my yearbook.

*…or with an intensive search on the nefarious Internet Wayback Machine.

Still, I have come to recognize that control over my internet persona remains altogether separate from its public acceptability. It’s a distinction hammered home by the Stone and Schuh case. I may not engage in illegal behavior, but neither did those two women. Their ill-fated attempt at humor is one I understand, their vulnerability is one I share.* In such cases that involve moral interpretation rather than strict legal boundaries then, it would be foolish for me not to engage in some introspection, especially as an individual currently in search of employment. What are the risks I’m willing to accept for the persona that I’ve created? What elements of my privacy am I willing to sacrifice for my online activity?

*Even if desecrating Arlington is not something I would ever consider. But to illustrate the point, feel free to examine my Twitter feed.

This last week, I added a line in the description of my Twitter account to underscore its satirical nature. I then thoroughly cleansed my Facebook account, in an unprecedented fashion. I removed much of my personal information, leaving only a profile picture and the details of my current position, and untagging myself from the modest number of photos I was connected to. Most importantly, I deleted the notes that I’ve written on the site, and removed most of my posted content dating back years. The only items left completely untouched are from the past few weeks. In time, that too will change. It’s the nature of my internet.

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