This may come as a shock to some of you, but I have a history of stalking.
It’s true, as soon as I meet someone new, provided I remember their name or something about them, I will Google them, Facebook them, Twitter them, and proceed to find out as much as I can about them via the magic of the Internet.
It’s only when this comes up in conversation that I remember not everyone does the same. Sure, some people do it when they are about to go out on a date (to make sure they other person is not a real stalker, no doubt) or before purchasing a big-ticket item from someone on Craigslist. The extent of my curiosity has raised more than a few eyebrows, however, and though I understand the arguments to the contrary, I think that making information about yourself available and being able to find out information about others is a step forward for society, not a step back.
But first, let’s address the issues people usually have with my stalkerish ways.
One argument that often comes up is that it takes some of the mystery out of meeting someone. The investigative process that once took years can now take minutes, and all those fun little idiosyncrasies might be outed prematurely. What will you talk about if you already know what bands they like, politicians they hate, and have already seen their photos from their trip to the Grand Canyon?
Another argument goes something like this: as more information about you becomes available online, the less control you have over your reputation. If there is a vehicle (like Facebook) available where people can post photos of you and tag them with your name, those photos are much more likely to show up in search results, thereby staining your otherwise spotless reputation.
My issue with both of these arguments is that they don’t consider 1) the direction the world and its relationship with technology is going, 2) the benefits that come with the baggage of having a ‘brand you’ online, and 3) that having a hands-off attitude toward the Internet and its impact on the real world can be much more harmful than taking the time to use it thoughtfully.
It’s undeniable that as the global populace becomes more and more comfortable with the Internet and other technologies, styles and customs and people are changing as well. This is an invention that changed the global economy, and at the same time it has changed our vernacular and religions and how we read maps and just about everything else in the world. To think that by not putting information about yourself online you will keep that information secret is a false assumption. Similarly, to deny yourself access to the same flow of information that everyone else has access to hurts no one but you. To be out of the loop is not romantic, it’s foolhardy.
Think of all the things we have today that are made possible by technology. GPS. One-click purchasing of just about anything from your mobile phone. Video games that operate by reading your brain waves. It’s incredible, really, but to get the full benefit from these technologies, in many cases you have to sacrifice a portion of your anonymity. You cannot take full advantage of 23andMe‘s at-home DNA test without spitting into a cup and sending it off to be analyzed in a lab. That in itself could be construed as pretty violating to some, but even more value can be gained by making your genetic information available on their partner-site, Ancestry.com. It’s like karma: the more you give, the more you get.
Think of it! You can find people who are related to your by having your DNA analyzed, from home, and then connect with relatives you didn’t know you had online through a social network. We live in the future, people, but if you aren’t willing to give a little and contribute to the global information wiki, then you miss out on the premium fruits of humanity’s labor.
Finally, by not playing an active role in the flow of information (especially as it relates to you), your personal brand can suffer. Anything negative or untrue will go unchallenged, either because you don’t know about it or because you don’t have enough of a reputation online to challenge it with authority. It’s a big responsibility, and perhaps not one that you would have chosen to take on, but if you do care what is attributed to your name, the reality is that you had better play at least a small part in the digital sector lest you should be left without recourse because of your disinterest.
Update: May 15, 2016
Thankfully, a lot of the pushback against technology that I describe above is no longer true. Or at least not true in the same way.
There’s actually a more organized front that runs counter to the always-on networks we’re all plugged into, but that counter-movement exists largely because we all use these networks so much, not because we fear and don’t understand them. People take digital sabbaticals because they’re always one their devices, not because they’re afraid of Facebook.
That said, I still think the arguments about owning your online brand are quite valid. Many of us are online, but don’t use the tools available well, which tends to offer you just as little defense against the dangers of identity theft and reputation attacks as not being there to begin with.
Much better to understand the tools, use them just enough to assume ownership of your identity, and maybe put out a few tendrils to ensure you have access to opportunities should they arise, and then establish boundaries so that you aren’t overwhelmed by the options available: turn off most notifications, block contacts from people who aren’t relevant to your life, post only when you have something to say, and so on. Own the technology, don’t be owned by it.