Impression Management Online
I am one of many people who were born before the Internet existed.
It can be a bit comforting to know that any youthful indiscretions are not on record anywhere. It’s not on file. You know that whole thing about, “This is going on your permanent record?” That doesn’t exist.
Or, at least it didn’t used to exist. Now all bets are off.
With the dichotomous public/private nature of online interactions, people seem to think that they’ve got privacy when they have anything but. A confession to a forum isn’t going to be shared with Google, right? A chat room cyber session won’t end up copied into a Word document, yes? And a quick topless photo on Snapchat won’t be saved as a screen shot, right?
Not so fast.
The persistence of digital memory is something that Stacy Snyder knows all too well. As Rosen, J. (2010, July 21). The web means the end of forgetting. New York Times.[Link] said, “When historians of the future look back on the perils of the early digital age, Stacy Snyder may well be an icon. The problem she faced is only one example of a challenge that, in big and small ways, is confronting millions of people around the globe: how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update,Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Websites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact.” (Page 1)
What is amazing to me is that the image of Snyder that gave her such problems was of her drinking alcohol when it was legal for her to do so everywhere in the United States (she was over the age of 21 at the time). She was not driving. Snyder was not engaging in unprotected sex (at least not in the image in question). She was not providing alcohol to a minor. Yet the image, of her in a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption, ‘Drunken Pirate’ was enough to get her school to deny her a degree – and a federal district judge agreed.
In addition, it could have even been ginger ale in that cup. All that mattered: it appeared that “she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students.” (Ibid.) Perception trumped everything else. Reality, apparently, was of no matter. And the fact that the consumption of alcohol is legal throughout all of the United States (even in dry counties) for those of us who are of age? That part doesn’t seem to matter, either.
So online life has other characteristics and other consequences. As Boyd, d. (2007). Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.),Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (pp. 119-142). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [PDF] noted, “I argue that social network sites are a type of networked public with four properties that are not typically present in face-to-face public life: persistence, searchability, exact copyability, and invisible audiences. These properties fundamentally alter social dynamics, complicating the ways in which people interact. I conclude by reflecting on the social developments that have prompted youth to seek out networked publics, and considering the changing role that publics have in young people’s lives.” (Page 2)
So what Snyder did, or didn’t do, was less important than the fact that it ended up online. Boyd’s enumeration of the chief characteristics of social networks lays out the pitfalls well. In addition, Boyd states, “These four properties thus fundamentally separate unmediated publics from networked publics:
- Persistence: Unlike the ephemeral quality of speech in unmediated publics, networked communications are recorded for posterity. This enables asynchronous communication but it also extends the period of existence of any speech act.
- Searchability: Because expressions are recorded and identity is established through text, search and discovery tools help people find like minds. While people cannot currently acquire the geographical coordinates of any person in unmediated spaces, finding one’s digital body online is just a matter of keystrokes.
- Replicability: Hearsay can be deflected as misinterpretation, but networked public expressions can be copied from one place to another verbatim such that there is no way to distinguish the “original” from the “copy.”
- Invisible audiences: While we can visually detect most people who can overhear our speech in unmediated spaces, it is virtually impossible to ascertain all those who might run across our expressions in networked publics. This is further complicated by the other three properties, since our expression may be heard at a different time and place from when and where we originally spoke.” (Page 9) (Ibid.)
One More Issue
I would argue that there’s a fifth component that Boyd is missing. Although it’s possible this did not become a major factor until after the Boyd article was written. And that is malleability. Content these days is altered in all sorts of ways. It’s done for fun, or to make a point, or even to commit malice. Photoshop an underage student next to Snyder, and she’s got an even worse problem on her hands. And if she was intoxicated enough to not recall the finer details of that evening, then she might not even be able to defend herself from what would essentially be libel. The Photoshop artist, along with the school, is her judge and jury.
The internet is her character’s executioner.