Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Controlling the Message

I wrote a paper last week on the role of a social media librarian and, combined with a class discussion on whether libraries should designate a social media librarian or simply encourage all their staff to engage with social media, I started thinking. Personally, I'm in favour of libraries employing a point person for social media (whether it's a PR person, a dedicated librarian, or just someone who rolls it into their other duties) for the same reason I publicly engage in a lot of social media myself. I think it's important to control the message.

As I always tell people, everyone is on the internet. Whether you actually use the internet or not, you're on there somewhere. Even if you've somehow never touched a computer, at some point in your life someone you know mentioned you online, or someone posted a picture of you online, or you participated in an event which was documented online. There are a million ways you can end up on the internet, and most of them are out of your control.

So, if you accept that you're already on the internet, you're faced with a choice. You can try and hide as much of your own presence as possible, or you can put things out there yourself. If you choose the first, you leave yourself at the mercy of others. While it might effectively minimize your presence online, it also means that the first thing that shows when someone Google's your name is a terrible picture your friend took, or a non-flattering story they told, or the ridiculous MySpace/LiveJournal/Geocities website you maintained in high school and forgot about years ago. Most people would probably be astounded by the amount of information I can find about them with some careful digging. Note: that sounds far creepier than I intended; I'm not actually sitting around digging up all kinds of info on random people.

The alternative is to control what is available to the public, not by trying to lock them out completely, but by letting them see what you want them to see. Personally, I flood the internet with publicly available information. I don't "advertise" this blog anywhere else, but if anyone somehow stumbled across it and wanted to know about me, I wouldn't be hard to find. I use my real name for this blog, as I do for my Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram and more. In the handful of places I post under a pseudonym, I use the same couple of pseudonym's which would not be hard to link back to me. Most of my accounts are connected to my about.me page. This forces me to behave well on the internet, but that's not a problem for me.

The benefit of this, is that because I flood the internet with things I'm comfortable with people seeing, things I control, I bury everything else. Though I'm not aware of any, there may well be ridiculous pictures or stories of me online. However, finding them would take some serious digging through the things which I make link tightly back to myself.

There are risks to this, of course. You don't want to make so much available that you can be hacked through some simple social engineering and have your identity stolen. You also don't want to open yourself up to e-stalking, a particular issue for women. Be smart about all of this.

No matter which direction you go with this, there are some simple rules you should remember when dealing on the internet. First of all, always remember that if you put it out there, you can't just take it back. Anything you put on the internet is probably there forever, it will be really hard to scrub it from the record. Even things you do anonymously may one day trace back to you, so why risk putting out sensitive information or saying something offensive?

You should also assume that anything you put on the internet will be available to anyone. Just because you restrict a Facebook picture to a close friend doesn't mean nobody else will ever see it. Maybe they get hacked one day, maybe you get hacked one day, maybe Facebook changes the permissions by accident one day. You never know what might happen, and if that picture hits the open internet it's out of your control forever. If you really don't want it out of your control, then don't risk it.

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