BBS vs. Facebook; social media part 2

As part of my ongoing nesting and resettling activities, I plan to renovate my social media presence. I’ve idly opined before that I don’t quite get social media, which may be another way of saying, “I don’t get society”. This may well be, but if true, it is probably an attitude I can’t sustain.

Back in the days before everyone had an Internet connection, I used to run a BBS — the kind you would call up with your 2400 baud modem and tie up your phone line with for hours. This is the environment which shaped my use of online communication for years to come: at 12, I was the admin of my own system, and managed to convince my mom to let me use an entire phone line and what was quickly to become a spare computer for my hobby. My friends were a bunch of tech-savvy early adopters, many of whom later attended the same magnet high school for math and science that I did. Our posts were public, but the forum was our own. I don’t remember the same sense of everything being logged, saved, analyzed, profiled and monetized as we have today; if you said something embarrassing online, it could at very worst cause you a few months of jeering or ostracism from your fellow high school students, much like anything you said in person. There were some secret-identity shenanigans which many friends who were present will know about, and not all of them were friendly. But on the whole, online interactions felt honest and I put myself out there quite a lot. There was limited liability. You saw your friends’ posts, in the order in which they posted them, and that was it.

That kind of environment doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Maybe if some early-adopter friend set up a sandbox, and sheltered it carefully from the spambots and search engines, we could have some approximation of that once again. But now that search engines record everything and employers regularly check your public social media profiles before an interview, we’re all public figures at some level. It wouldn’t be too big a step to sell career profiles based on material scraped from public websites to recruiters and HR departments, surely someone’s already doing this. We may never have as many followers as Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Justin Bieber, but that doesn’t matter because the people who are interested in us (and who may wield power over us) have access to everything we put online, which is, increasingly, everything.

My friends have told me exactly this, multiple times, but I never really took it seriously until just now. I used Facebook at first more or less as I would have used my old BBS, putting all kinds of wacky things up there onto a more or less public profile which I figured only my old friends knew about. Those things are (for now) still there, but I’ve locked them, and my profile, down now and plan to retire as much of that content as is feasible from public view. Next are LinkedIn and G+. I may retire my research blog; all it will communicate to employers or collaborators is that I’ve never taken it seriously enough to update it regularly. I expect to find myself a Twitter account to judiciously follow especially relevant content from high-signal-to-noise posters, but I don’t expect I’ll be posting much there. For the moment, I’ll keep posting here; I don’t think I’ve said anything here that would make me look terrible to a prospective employer (though time may prove me wrong).

The question that comes to my mind is: how do transparency and authenticity interact in a radically transparent world? Even though nominal privacy policies are supposed to allow me to control the way I share my content, just knowing that some anonymous bot out there is analyzing my every keystroke has a chilling effect on what I feel like I can say. How to handle, e.g., tags, with friends and friends-of-friends, who may be professional associates as well? Unlike the old dial-up days, I really can’t say anything here or elsewhere online which I wouldn’t want quoted out of context in a job interview or court hearing twenty years from now. Yes, I’m late to the party.

Some among my friends have looked at it this way: if everything’s saved, quotable, mineable and so forth, the only solution is to lead an online life which aligns perfectly with one’s actual life, which is, moreover, beyond reproach — and thereby to embrace being an essentially public figure. I guess this could work in theory, but I for one don’t trust myself never to slip, nor to see the future and judge all possible interactions I may have with people there. Not without some kind of context or training.

The other solution is to lock down everything, sharing nothing of oneself online. Of course, by doing this one limits oneself to having all interesting or relevant interactions offline or, at most, in email — where an increasing fraction of the action is taking place. So that won’t really work either: in future professional interactions, I will probably need the cross section that an online presence gives me, in order to compete on the open market with other people who have online presences.

I suppose the mostly content-free, common-sense answer that comes to my mind is that I should treat the entire Internet, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as a “professional”, office-friendly online presence. Self-censoring in this case goes beyond “NSFW” and includes the intensely personal, often anxious or negative, comments that make up a lot of the processing I go through with friends, as well as some of the political things I post that are farther left of center than my employers may be. While not strictly dishonest, and technically “being myself”, it’d be more accurate to say that I now believe my online presence should contain no easily accessible information that contradicts the brand I want to promote for myself: an optimistic, friendly, fearsomely capable professional, who will solve your problems with a smile ahead of schedule and under budget. Probably much like the brand everyone else wants, except I’m different, somehow, in a way that needs to be quantified and digitized and easily indexed.

This is probably going to be tricky. My personal brand for casual social interactions is one of easy authenticity, where I share just a bit more than the average person and appear a little goofier than I feel in order to bond with the people around me. This works often enough, but if I don’t feel safe, I slip into my “shields up” mode where I share almost nothing and just listen until I see some kind of inroad. I gradually gained a sense (through repeated failure) of what constituted oversharing in offline casual social interactions. But I wonder how failure-tolerant the new Internet is; if I screw up online, I expect it can hurt me and I won’t find out for a while what people Googled that torpedoed their confidence in me. And it’ll be right there in the Wayback Machine the whole time. I suddenly feel much more risk-averse, not having a good sense of my audience.

In academia, I’ve had to perform to high standards but I’ve never been particularly image-conscious. This may already have hurt me in ways that are hard to quantify, as professional images are real things and I haven’t been actively managing mine. For example, I’m still being invited for talks at astronomical software infrastructure meetings, to talk about my work on pipelines and supernova searches, when I’d also really love to be talking about my scientific discoveries in supernova physics! If I have to move to industry, as seems increasingly likely, I expect to have to practice and polish an entirely new way of interacting with people in the workplace, learning new boundaries and behaviors, new thresholds for filtering information. That won’t come overnight and will have to be rehearsed. I hope one or more patient friends in the industry world can help me with this sometime.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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