Sep 282009

I remember when the internet was still new and shiny.  Back then if you were one of the folks who actually had a computer and, on top of that, the “luxury” of an internet connection you could pick a handle to be known by and spout off whatever you wanted to online without fear of the people in your “real life” finding what you said.  Oh, sure…it happened on occasion.  I’ll bet most of us who were around back in those days had at least one uncomfortable moment where we were confronted with the person who we had slagged up one side and down the other on Live Journal.  There’s nothing quite like that sinking, horrible feeling you get in the pit of your stomach the first time someone says “I read something about me on your blog” when you didn’t know the person in question even could even figure out how to turn a computer ON.  On the whole, though, the internet was a vast anonymous playground in those days.  The people who knew you in meat space were likely in your social circle and could generally be counted on to be trusted confidants.  You could talk about anything you wanted to, and we did.  Oh did we.  We talked about our sexual conquests.  We talked about how insane our families made us.  We talked about our jobs, and what we really thought about them.  We talked about our secret dreams.  We talked about recreational drug use.

We swore a lot, too.

Those days are over.

These days having a personal computer is a requirement in many schools.  Your internet connection is no longer a luxury, it is a necessary utility that ranks right up there with your electric, water, and gas bills.  In this era of Social Media the blogosphere is no longer an exclusive playground of the intellectually elite.  With services like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace enticing everyone and their brother to join the conversation the phrase “read more about it on my blog” has replaced “Good night, and good luck” as the most recognizable catch phrase of modern newscasters.

The era of anonymity has come to an end.

This trend started a while ago, but I think it’s only just starting to hit home to some of the old school crowd.  We’re seeing more and more companies adopt social networking policies that state, in no uncertain terms, that our presence online and the way we represent ourselves can have a direct impact on our employment.  We’ve gone from a time when we could talk online about how much we hated (or wanted to have sex with) our boss to an era of being worried that we might be fired if someone takes a picture of us drunk at a party and uploads it to Facebook so all our co-workers can see it on Monday morning.  It’s a radical paradigm shift, and some of us just aren’t coping well.

Unfortunately for us the only solution is to completely opt out.  Even if we remove our real name, and our face, and everything that could possibly identify us from our online avatars the fact of the matter is that unless we completely cut the cord from everyone we know there is always going to be the fear that someone is going to leak that information.  Even if we take the steps necessary to be completely “anonymous” there are individuals who, if inspired to do so, can go through the motions to track us down.  It happens quite frequently.

What we say and do online matters now.  We have to own what we say, and take responsibility for the consequences if what we say offends, hurts, or otherwise causes drama in another persons life.

It’s a frightening shift, and I think that in the short term we’re going to see a lot more people just vanish from the social networking atmosphere.  Maybe at some point we’ll see society in general take a step back from being so open and available, but I’m not sure that’s very likely to happen.  The idea has become the institution as it were, and if we aren’t prepared to face the reality that what we say and do online will have a direct impact on our “real” life we are on a ugly collision course with some very unpleasant situations.  Job losses.  Law suits.  Loss of friendship.  Family strife.  Things we never dreamed we’d possibly face back when we were so prolific on our blogs a mere five years ago.

But is it really so bad?

Yes, I know, we are now faced with a type of censorship.  On the flip side, however, we’re given the opportunity to make connections with people who we never would have dreamed we’d get to know so well in the past.  My Mother has been making fairly regular updates to her Facebook status recently, and I cherish them.  I’m not the type of person who just picks up the phone and calls my Mom.  It’s not that I don’t love her, I’m just not a phone person.  I’ve gotten more insight in what she does on a daily basis in the last few months than I probably have in the last ten years.  I know that the incredibly friendly security guard at my corporate headquarters likes to go fishing on the weekend, and he knew that we’d had a swine flu scare and told me he was glad to see me in the office the first day I came back after it.  I know that my counterpart in our department really likes to bake.  I know that a former director of mine has an even more wonderfully twisted sense of humor than I imagined.  I could go on.  The fact of the matter is that where there used to be a clear line between online friends and real life friends the distinction is blurred and in many ways I feel closer to the people in my life now than I have in a very long time thanks to the lack of anonymity on the internet these days.

This is why I came out of the virtual closet a year or so ago and “buried” Critus as a persona to hide behind.  Oh, I still use the handle, but there isn’t any doubt that Critus is me and I do my absolute best to pretty much act online as I do in real life.

I still have my “protected” entries on Live Journal on occasion, but on the whole?  If I wouldn’t say it to my Mother I don’t say it online.

Considering that the era of anonymity spawned the “internet dickwad theory” I’m not entirely convinced that we’ve moved in the wrong direction.

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