4 min read

Claim Your Name

Claim Your Name
TL;DR: Make smart choices when using social media professionally to avoid privacy and security concerns.

Each semester, I seem to get at least one student who has issues with using social media for class because of privacy concerns. While I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t be concerned about their privacy in an age that encourages us to be public about every aspect of our lives, I tend to think that many are just being paranoid or don’t have an informed knowledge of the issues. It’s easier to say “I don’t want to do this assignment for privacy reasons” than to consider how it might be approached so that a threat to privacy should not even be an issue.

Whereas twentieth-century media forms, particularly those of the print paradigm, tried to maintain an objective, neutral point-of-view, the digital media emphasize and encourage the personal and subjective. From blogs to Facebook, users now want editorial with their news, and this desire for the personal and subjective has colored current old media like television: “news” no longer seems objective and much of our entertainment is “based on actual events” or part of “reality programming.” It seems that in the digital world we increasingly inhabit, the personal is privileged and even expected.

This, however, needn’t be a cause for concern. As a postmodern student of literature, I’m aware that all narrative is filtered through the lens of subjectivity. What we call “fiction” and “non-fiction” are problematic, since every narrative is subject to the author(ity) that organizes it. In a sense, all writing is fiction in that we do not receive anything that isn’t first filtered through our forestructure —i.e., our unique view of the world based on our experiences, attitudes, and place within it. In a sense, there is no objective reality because even it is transformed by our subjectivities.

For example, we usually file “biography” under “non-fiction,” since the genre denotes a factual account of the life of a person. Certain facts will tend not to deviate - like dates, locations of events, persons involved - but how those facts are arranged and interpreted through the biographer tell another story. A biography of Bill Clinton written by Hillary Clinton would likely tell a very different story than one written by Bill O’Reilly. Each are supposed to be “non-fiction,” but I’m sure you’d agree that the filter of the author would add fictitious elements to what should be a factual account. The troubling question is: how would we ever really know?

My point is that while the digital world might make forays into our private lives in ways that print culture never did, we also have ways of contributing to our own narratives in positive and direct ways via digital media.

While many sites like Facebook encourage users to enter personal information - like your birthday, birth name and place, telephone numbers, and other private information — we need to remember that we are in control of the information we put out there.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with privacy. However, we need to keep in mind the link between freedom and security: more of one means less of the other. If we lock down a system - make it as secure as we can - it becomes a chore for legitimate users to access, if they can at all. Think of the security lines at airports or the current debate over immigration in the US. The more we lock down our borders and our travel, the less we are able to easily move around, inhibiting our freedoms. Sure, the less information you post online the more secure you are, but you run the danger of being left behind by the digital world. This should be a concern for us all, especially for students.

However, being aware should not paralyze us. Yes, walking out the door of your house in the morning is risky, but certain risks are necessary to allow us to live. And work. And share our lives. And be human beings who make connections.

We should walk the line between security and freedom in issues of privacy. I propose using the business card as a model: only post information online that you would put on a business card. In other words, share only your professional information with the world at large. Keep your private life private, including family photos. In fact, it doesn’t really have much baring on who we are professionally anyway.

We should be aware of potential dangers of disclosing too much about ourselves online, like identity theft, stalking, unintentional fame, online victimization, and consequences to employment. Keep the business card model in mind as businesses often use social media to screen potential and current employees. Use strong passwords. If you use your social media accounts professionally, be sure to limit the amount of information you post to them, also keeping potentially harmful or abusive content off of them. Email, too, was never designed to be secure. Consider anything you send over email as being potentially public, so never email sensitive data. Set your Facebook account to private, strictly controlling who can see your information by choosing who you “friend” carefully. Remember, too, whatever you post is likely part of a permanent public record, so always be careful before hitting that “tweet” button.

Take active control of your online identity. Choose a version of your name to use on various professional web sites, like About.me, Twitter, and Linked In. You might even use a service like Brand Yourself to help you exert control over your professional online identity. The more you do correctly in creating and maintaining your identity, the less harm others can do to it.

We will never be 100% secure online, but approach your privacy concerns smartly and try the business card approach for your social media accounts you use professionally. Smart use of social media has more potential benefits than it does hazards.