Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Generation Y will regret not protecting their online identity brand

If you read my previous posts (here and here) relating to one's online identity brand, you may find this article from NY Magazine interesting. Word of warning's a VERY long read so do it only if you have a spare half hour.

The article talks about the common practice of under 25s (pretty much "Generation Y") letting it all hang out and being completely public about every aspect of their lives. From MySpace and Facebook profiles, public Flickr photos of activities and parties to their own blogs written in diary style disclosing everything from break ups to private feelings and insecurities.

Maybe it's the security consultant in me... or maybe it's the Generation X-er in me (technically, I'm on the cusp of Generation Y - depending on who's definition you subscribe to, I'm either Gen-X or Gen-Y - notice that even Wikipedia's articles have discrepancies in the date ranges) but I really think the individuals interviewed for the article are taking a rather Utopian and idealistic view of the world. Part of it could be attributed to their relative ages and with that comes a level of naivety about the way society works (I'm feeling rather old right about now) and the dangers out there on the Internet. The article does touch on the negatives with such a public display of everything that is you, but it largely focuses on the fact that these Gen Y-ers think that everything is going to be fine and that there are no consequences. Apparently reputation is supposed to take care of everything (ie. people will behave if they want to keep their good name in tact - I think they may have forgotten about the fact it's really easy to fake your identity online and not have anyone notice when trying to do something "evil") and it will all be fine if people know the real you and you're not being fake.

I'll go slightly off my point here in mentioning that they even talk about the potential loss of privacy and potential stalkers and perverts, but they blissfully pass this off as being part of the territory. I suppose it'll take a serious, high profile incident to get these people to take this aspect more seriously and start to worry about potential safety risks! The article goes so far as saying we live in a world of "perceived" privacy and Gen Y-ers are the first to realise this hence they readily embrace the web without fear and can put themselves out there without really losing any privacy at all. It uses the fact that we are on cameras everywhere we go as an example to illustrate the "perceived" part of this supposed privacy we all think we have. What they failed to mention is that things such as surveillance cameras cannot be linked to your identity very easily. First, they need someone to recognise you. Things we do in our daily lives are generally difficult to track back to your identity (Credit cards and financial transactions being the obvious exceptions). Online, this is not the case. Everything out there on the web has identity specific information about individuals. Something as innocuous as a comment you place on someone's blog may contain your identity information and can be readily traced back to you from the comfort of someone else's computer. Sure, I agree these safety issues can be mitigated by being careful not to release too much information. Generally, if information gets out and you released it, it's your fault. Therein lies the danger. These blissfully unassuming Gen Y-ers need to be educated about privacy and how valuable it actually is. Unfortunately, they're all out there trying to be the next Paris Hilton to care.

Now, back to reputation. At least they have the sense to think about this aspect. They realise that everything they put out there will go towards their personal reputation (in real life, not just online) and simply write off anything embarrassing as "oh, they'll forget about it" or "people won't care what I did at a party 5 or 10 years ago". They don't seem to realise that everything you have ever done counts for or against you...even more so if someone can find it online.

Maybe this is ok when it comes to friends or social acquaintances because we forgive our friends for things they've done, but it sure a hell matters when it comes to your professional life! And here lies another problem. Anything you may have done that you are not proud of will follow you around as a black mark to be used against you in the cutthroat world that is business. It also goes towards character. Lawyers use character witnesses all the time to help establish that a person is capable (or incapable) of performing an action by playing the "that is just out of character" angle. Pretty soon, they won't need character witnesses. Lawyers can just point the judge and jury at a bunch or URLs.

When it comes to business and anything professional, there's money involved. I'm stating the obvious here but I mention this because it is much more difficult to "forgive" someone for something they did 5 or 10 years ago when I have a financial interest in them. Does an executive really want someone with compromising online photos and videos fronting a deal worth millions? Would they have been hired in the first place? What about that promotion? If the decision is between 2 equally qualified people and one of them has posted things about themselves that are not particularly flattering, I sure as hell wouldn't be selecting them! What about situations where it is absolutely imperative that mental toughness is paramount and you have a blog entry pouring your heart out about your deep insecurities and lack of confidence in your ability? You've already given you opponent an advantage before you begin.

This "online identity brand" thing isn't going to go away...especially with the way the next generation is using the web. Everything seems to be out in the open and they're proud of it. The first step however, is the realisation of the implications behind all this. Your professional reputation counts on it. Your "online identity brand" is inherently linked to your reputation. You are what your "online identity brand" says you are...even if you have no control over certain aspects of it.

The problem? They're all too young to know any better.

Note: Boy do I feel old NOW. Next thing you know, I'll be going around calling kids "sonny boy" and start sentences with "back in my day".

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