Consumers' Dilemma: Consequences Of Exposure
So it is with mixed feelings that I've decided to privatize a majority of the pictures on my Flickr photo-sharing site. From now on, anyone who ever enjoyed regular, open access to my photos, along with full ability to pass them along and leave comments, will now need to request a password from me. Bummer!
Why did I privatize? Foremost, an anonymous freak started leaving "intimate" comments about my wife. I guess you would characterize him as a digital stalker. Sure, I could've turned comments off, but that sick lunatic still would've had too much access to a lot of photos of my life, which includes photos of my family. For his safety, the slime better stay anonymous and far, far away! Don't mess with me, and especially my family!
Second, a few friends--and I emphasize only a couple among thousands--became self-conscious because some photos of them became highly visible in Google search results. When they searched their names, the photos I tagged often zipped to the top. This would not bother me, but I will respect their attempts to manage their digital identities and privacy.
Again, the decision to privatize was a very difficult one. I've published openly on the Web nearly every photo I've taken since I started my Flickr account a year and a half ago, and I published similarly before that on other services. I love taking photos of people--often candid, un-staged and with interesting angles and cropping. And I didn't mind making most of my photos available to the world, because exposing them ultimately exposed my personality and interests, resulting in new connections with dozens of like-minded people.
Making my photos public also made it easy for friends and loved ones to access them. The unfortunate fact about password-protected photo sites--or walled gardens in general --is that passwords are difficult to manage and ultimately discourage participation by the very people you want inside. I rarely visit friends and relatives' password-protected photo sites because I just can't keep track of all the passwords.
Privacy Versus Transparency
Ultimately, the intimate, emotional, viral and self-reflective impact of photo creation and sharing accentuated a core issue in my case: exposure. It became a battle between the benefits of transparency, discoverability and community, versus the perceived safety and privacy of hiding behind walled gardens, or avoiding social networks entirely. It's a spectrum and, yes, it's muddy water.
I passionately argue that the exposure risks of consumer-generated media too often are over-hyped. I believe the benefits clearly outweigh drawbacks; of all things, we're advanced social beings! Regardless, it is certain our culture is destined for serious growing pains as various consumer segments continue to create and publish more content, while others don't. This new dimension ultimately translates into a question of who exposes themselves online and who doesn't, and to what degree.
Of course, the gap can be caused by a number of reasons, and age difference is a big one. Indeed, the Guardian recently highlighted (free registration required) Accenture's new survey research suggesting that "54% of young people want to create or share their own content over the Web." Other factors that fuel the gap include economic, social and, simply, personal preferences.
This gap will fester in many places in our social and professional lives. Employment is one example: As Noah Brier from NoahBrier.com asks, should the permanent, digital trail of exposure left behind by minors on places like MySpace and FaceBook be considered fair game for job-applicant evaluations ten or twenty years down the line? Brier points out that "if enough candidates have chronicled their lives in all its excess glory, then there won't be too many options. Employers are going to have to allow the past to be the past and hire some people who have documented some things that might not be entirely professional." Of course, this question applies far beyond employment and hiring practices.
Regardless of how our society evolves, the inconsistencies in standards and expectations of exposure will continue to cause greater friction and, consequently, soul searching. I'm not sure how this issue will play out, but I'm certain of one thing: we're in a transitional phase, on the verge of tackling one serious question. Mainly, how do we promote and protect our personal identities in an age where our digital breadcrumbs have high potential to endure and be discovered for infinity?