The Thousand Tiny Knives

December 04, 2009
In privacy management, it's the major data breaches that grab the big headlines.  In personal brand management, it's the high profile embarrassments resulting from carelessness, ignorance and poor judgment that capture public attention.  Janine Krieber, Nathalie Blanchard, Stephen Fry, Tiger Woods... who'll be next?  Not you, certainly.

For most of us, risks to our privacy and reputation aren't a significant danger, provided that we do a reasonable job of managing ourselves.  Managing user profiles is relatively easy, provided that we treat anything posted on or transmitted through the Internet as public, even if it's shielded behind passwords and privacy controls.  Unless we can positively guarantee the fidelity of each person who views our personal information, each software and security measure that stores and safeguards our information, and each legal jurisdiction where our information exists, there's no certain means of protecting and containing data that we choose to share with others.

Managing on-line conduct is slightly more difficult.  You've probably been in that state of mind where it was necessary to take a few deep breaths before typing your views about an emotionally charged topic, particularly when doing so into a thread where others were being far less conscientious.  You may have even been at the point where you needed to push the keyboard to the monitor and step away from your computer outright, rather than give in to the desire to fire off some bitter diatribe that your mind had already begun composing faster than your fingers could record it.  You saw the danger and stopped, because you understood that absolutely no good would have come from it, no matter how temporarily satisfying it might have felt.

So your reputation is safe, right?  Well, probably.  You saved yourself from the potential fallout of a public vent.  But in social networking, the danger in privacy and personal brand management is not in falling on your sword, but being pierced by The Thousand Tiny Knives.

Substitute your weapon of choice — pins, needles, razor blades — I happen to like the sound of  Thousand Tiny Knives.  But my point is that while we are not seriously vulnerable to personal brand suicide, or reputation assassination by a large, singular event — the sword — we may be harmed by the cumulative data that we leave in small amounts in a thousand different places.  And thanks to Google, Microsoft Bing, Yahoo! and other future players in the personal data marketplace, collecting and compiling your life into a neat pile is going to become increasingly more simple with every passing year.

Consider for a moment: How many social networking sites do you belong to?  Which bits of information are you sharing at each site?  Does the information you share vary depending on the types of questions that the site asks, or provides convenient content boxes for?  Do you utilize the privacy controls that each site provides (if any)?  Do you collect contacts widely, or weigh them individually?  How many photos have you uploaded or emailed?  How many YouTube videos?  How many blogs do you manage?  How many blog posts have you written?  Forum posts?  Tweets?  Status updates?  How many times has your appearance in the photos and videos of others been tagged or otherwise notated? And when you express yourself, is it in the style of someone enjoying a pleasant, personal conversation with a friend; or someone at a podium surrounded by microphones and cameras, with feeds distributing the content live to who knows where?

Whether we engage in social media with the desire to accumulate reputational capital, express what we feel openly and without fear to anyone who cares to listen, or simply in hopes of being noticed, there is the danger of disorientation, perceptual loss, and carelessness.  It's not significantly different from gradually speeding in your car.  The immediate environment feels safe and comfortable; you're not fully aware of the nature or volume of activity happening in your wake; you may not be aware of the dangerousness of your increasing velocity until you hit something. So it can be with social media: saying more than you should, expressing as if no one is listening, sharing what should be kept entirely private, scattering different details in different places —  not being fully cognisant of what was posted where at what time. Creating a trail of data.

If someone were inclined to collect each piece of information that you've shared in a thousand (or more) different places, how complete a puzzle could they assemble of you?  While the pieces are innocuous when separated by time and location, is the picture they create upon reassembly one that you wish to be seen, or one you would rather have kept hidden had you understood how they might be used?

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