Trust on the Internet
A few days ago, a friend shared on Facebook that he’s considering running for a state Senate seat in a few years. And I immediately thought: holy shit, I could never do that.
It’s not that I’ve engaged in any particularly scandalous or illegal activities. My life of crime has thus far been limited to past-due parking tickets. But at the ripe old age of 27, I can’t even imagine my Internet contributions undergoing – and passing – an election cycle level of inspection.
Facebook came to Georgetown the spring of my freshman year. Eight years later, I’d wager that my written and visual displays of narcissism are bulkier than the Senate’s collective Timelines (pages run by PR departments don’t count). And if you include all my tweets, Path updates, Yelp reviews and blog posts, maybe the whole House, too. Sure, some of this information is “private,” but we all know that word means little, if anything at all.
So what happens when the Facebook generation comes of campaigning age? Will the oversharers’ oversharing take them out of the running entirely? Knowing the scrutiny that today’s politicians’ relatively undocumented pre-social-web pasts suffer, why would anyone willingly offer up all their bits and bytes for public consumption?
It’s not just politics, of course. The same concerns apply to any buttoned-up industry or high profile position. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company should not come with the digital baggage of fraternity party photos and inebriated tweets. You could argue – quite convincingly – that no one should.
We basically have two options, as individuals and as a society. We can play it safe, watering down our online personas until we’re sufficiently bland and inoffensive. And we can continue to hold each other to the rigid, robotic standards that existed before the personal information explosion.
Or we can test the limits of trust and acceptance. The challenge with all this Internet socializing – and with public-by-default services like Twitter, especially – is that we have very little context, if any, as sharers and as recipients. Being critical or snarky or inappropriate is one thing when you know your audience (and it knows you); it’s another thing when your audience is impossibly diverse and largely anonymous. Everything is open to interpretation, and often misinterpretation.
But there’s also a tremendous upside. Human interactions are more multifaceted and scalable than ever before. We get new glimpses into the personalities of friends, colleagues, and even celebrities. We discover remarkably funny, intelligent people that we would never “know” otherwise. Hell, I even have a solid conversion rate on Internet-to-real-life relationships. And while my parents and other naysayers will lament that these digital interactions detract from time spent on “real” human connections, I’d argue that they’re only additive.
Sure, sometimes it gets weird. Opinions are misinterpreted. The tweets that seemed so hilarious three drinks in are less so the next day. And some people are just. Plain. Creepy.
But a little creepiness is a small price to pay for all-new ways to connect with other humans. And the serendipity, hilarity, and unprecedented information access far outweigh the harassment.
Granted, my perspective is warped. Silicon Valley is abnormally tolerant of big personalities projected on big audiences. As it should be, given that it’s home to the very services that have created this brave new world. And startupland is naturally more tolerant of its children than the corporate world is of its minions.
But maybe we’re just at the forefront of an all-new way of sharing with and knowing each other, and maybe this new dynamic will force us all to accept and embrace that behind those Twitter handles are – gasp – quirky, flawed, opinionated, AWESOME humans. With remarkably beautiful dogs.
So, who knows? Maybe a life of politics isn’t totally off the table, after all.
Mayer for Mayor* in 2016?
*This joke cracked me up in elementary school. AND IT’S STILL FUNNY, DAMMIT.