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In the News: When Private Identities Go Public

One thing that irks me – rightly or wrongly – is when news reports cite a MySpace profile as a source of information. Usually, it’s the local news trying to dig up information on a suddenly news-worthy person without making the effort of a phone call. When it comes to national politics, though, the stakes are higher. Most recently, potentially detrimental quotes from the MySpace profile of Levi Johnson, the father of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby, were making the rounds. The information was first posted in the New York Post, after which it quickly circulated through the blogosphere, and the information gleaned from the MySpace profile eventually found its way into mainstream media. A second example comes from last year’s Republican primaries. wrote a story about Rudy Giuliani’s daughter supporting Obama over her father based on a Facebook group that she joined.

Since I’m blogging here at Digital Natives, the political implication of these stories is not going to be my focus point. My aversion of this method of journalism, though, runs a little deeper than irritation at the violation of privacy. There’s just seems to me – perhaps even a bit irrationally I admit – that it’s wrong to thrust into the national spotlight people who have done nothing deserving of it except for their associations with other public figures. They’re being judged on content never intended for the eyes of anyone but their friends. A MySpace or even Facebook profile is far from private, but does that automatically make them appropriate sources for news? On the other hand, shouldn’t the children of politicians be savvier about what’s associated with their online profiles?

One of my coworkers this summer had remarked to me, “I try to keep everything on my Facebook pretty PC – when you’re friends with 200 people, you have to be pretty careful.” Although 200 friends on Facebook is not an especially remarkable number—particularly to a college student like me, whose peers are all constantly plugged in – my coworker’s remarks forced me to reframe my point of view. 200 people, each with their different opinions, sensibilities, and ideas, truly is a lot of people to possibly offend. Even as someone who is careful about what I attach my name to online, I wouldn’t have to dig very deep to find something potentially embarrassing or offensive to someone.

So why aren’t we more careful about what is posted online? After all, our digital identities are carefully crafted to reflect ourselves in some specific light, if not an objectively “better” one. In the New York Times Magazine article, “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You” (which Diana also cited in her entry yesterday), Clive Thompson writes of this paradox:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching — but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

I do have a quibble with Thompson’s wording: somewhere in the back of our heads we may know that it’s possible “everyone is watching,” but our digital identities are not created for the purpose of exhibition to everyone. How many teenagers are comfortable with their parents or teachers or even a random stranger friending them on MySpace or Facebook or Twitter? Our digital identities are constructed for our peers – be it our real life friends or a specific online community. We strive to present ourselves as unique and opinionated to our peers. A bland profile is as good as no profile at all. Genuine interactions with friends are uncensored by concerns of political correctness, sanitizing these interactions online in fact changes the function of social networking tools. Just as we carry ourselves differently at a job interview than when hanging out with friends, our digital identities are tuned to a specific purpose. The distinction, of course, being that what is posted online can potentially be accessible, per Clive Thompson, by everyone. Those who have been thrust into the spotlight, like Levi Johnson and Caroline Giuliani, have learned this the hard way.

-Sarah Zhang