Owning your words

Yesterday the charmingly middle-named Jennifer 8. Lee wrote a fascinating story for the NY Times, Net Users Try to Elude Google's Grasp . Here are some excerpts:

These days, people are seeing their privacy punctured in intimate ways as their personal, professional and online identities become transparent to one another. Twenty-somethings are going to search engines to check out people they meet at parties. Neighbors are profiling neighbors. Amateur genealogists are researching distant family members. Workers are screening co-workers.

In other words, it is becoming more difficult to keep one's past hidden, or even to reinvent oneself in the American tradition. "The net result is going to be a return to the village, where everyone knew everyone else," said David Brin, author of a book called "The Transparent Society" (Perseus, 1998). "The anonymity of urban life will be seen as a temporary and rather weird thing."

As always, Brin's visionary book remains the touchstone for this issue. What I find most interesting about this article is a subtle shift in emphasis. A few years ago, there might have been a suggestion that control was possible -- that with the right kind of architecture, individuals could control their cyber-footprints. Now, the sense seems to be -- Palladium notwithstanding -- that such control will not be possible. And the implications of that are starting to sink in:

Jeanne Achille, the chief executive of a public relations firm called the Devon Group, was horrified that someone had used her name and e-mail address to post racist slurs in a French online discussion group. She has repeatedly had to explain the situation to potential clients who have asked her about the posting.

"Whoever did this had to put some thought into it," Ms. Achille said. "Is it perhaps one of our competitors? Is it someone who felt we did something to them and wanted to get back at us? Is it a personal thing? Is it a disgruntled former employee?"

The posting has been impossible to remove. "There is no cyberpatrol that you can go to and make all of this go away," Ms. Achille said. "You just have to live with it."

What hasn't yet sunk in, though, is what can be controlled: identity. You can't be an anonymous yet fully connected cyber-citizen. You can, however, certify your identity. What Ms. Achille and others will eventually discover is that you can't hide from Google, but you can own your words.

Not co-incidentally, ownership is central to the weblog experience. I own my space, nobody else speaks in it. You own yours, nobody else speaks there. We interact, as Dave Winer likes to say, at a respectful distance. As we do so, we tell our own stories in ways that Google finds authoritative.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/07/25.html#a354