In the juiciest political sex scandals, revelations of hypocrisy are often the chief source of glee. There’s nothing quite like discovering that a representative who has campaigned on “family values” is secretly keeping a mistress, or that one who has consistently voted against gay rights is actually in the closet himself. This mismatch between public image and private behaviour gets as much airtime as the titillating details of acts performed or texts exchanged.
With the disclosure that Congressman Anthony Weiner was sending women sexual snapshots via Twitter, that public-private mismatch has found a new form. Weiner may not make any top 10 lists for sexual hypocrisy, but his misbehavior carries its own special disappointments for his online fans. Weiner is known as one of the politicians who makes the smartest, most effective use of Twitter. And yet, here he is, caught making one of the stupidest online moves ever.
It’s no accident that a notorious Twitter #fail comes from someone who is social media-savvy. It’s a classic case of live by the sword, die by the sword: those who truly live their lives online are likely to bring their whole selves online with them. One part of that self may be the brilliant politician (or hilarious comedian, or compelling CEO, or articulate spokesperson) but it’s likely that there are shadow selves too: The womanizer. The glutton. The partier. The gambler.
None of us is one thing only. We all have shadow selves. Offline society is set up to sanction and repress those, which is a necessary and valuable thing. Social judgment can help control compulsion or addiction: the raised eyebrow from a colleague who catches you checking out someone other than your spouse, the bartender who cuts you off.
The Internet, online society, on the other hand, allows us the elbow room to indulge, to explore our shadow selves without the same social pressure to behave. It does this by applying a veneer of anonymity and creating a sense of distance from our actions. Flashing, for example, is anti-social behaviour and the vast majority of us wouldn’t consider doing it in public, even with consenting partners. Yet, on NPR today, came a report of the high number of older married couples who are regularly sending explicit texts, despite the fact that it is, in a sense, flashing publicly.
The marketplace that is online society confirms the disconnect between the online and offline worlds in terms of behaviour. Porn accounts for about a third of the Internet, where it competes for our attention with gambling, first-person shooters and LOLcats. Many of us seem to have come to these early days of the Internet the way we might show up for a drunken spring break on a Greek Island: let go of your inhibitions, confident that nobody back home will hear about your exploits.
Now as we move more of our lives online, we spend more of our waking hours shielded from the social judgements that constrain our offline behaviour. That shift will pose the greatest challenge to those who spend the most time online, particularly if they depend on social judgements to save them from their desire to explore that shadow self. Ironically, these will often be the very people that others look to as role models for online behaviour: cyber-savvy citizens whose constant tweeting, blogging and facebooking is presumed to be as exemplary as their offline lives.
All the more reason that social media enthusiasts need to be extra cautious about online vices: we’re more likely to indulge (because we’re online more), more likely to get caught (because we’re widely watched) and more likely to disappoint others when we do (because they’ve seen us as the online standard-setters).
But you can manage the personal and professional risks of online indulgence by remembering the 3 Ps: Principled, Private and Planned. Here’s what they entail:
Principled: If you’re using the Internet to shield yourself from judgement by friends, family, colleagues or community, make sure you’re not also violating your own moral code. Identify the ethical principles or standards you’re going to adhere to in your private activities, whether it’s the 10 commandments, the Golden Rule, or a simple “don’t hurt anybody.” Be clear about the secret parts of yourself that you want to encourage, and find room for them to grow online, while avoiding sites or people who legitimate behaviours you know are unhealthy or wrong. You can take a principled approach to even the murkiest parts of your online life if you:
- Write down your core principles for online behaviour (or bookmark someone else’s) so you can check in periodically and make sure you’re not violating your ethical own bottom line.
- Seek out online communities and activities that support parts of you that stay hidden offline but need a voice: gay teens, cancer fighters, aspiring poets and rape survivors are just some of the groups who have found a new source of understanding online.
- Talk with your partner about what’s OK for you to keep private online, and make sure you are both taking the same precautions to keep your private activities shielded from one another or the world.
- Cut off communications if an online pal insists on asking for (or giving you) permission to indulge in behaviours that are unhealthy, hurtful or against your conscience.
Private: If parts of your online life conflict with your offline life and responsibilities, create a private online identity without links to any identifiable information (i.e. don’t connect it to your Facebook account, main email address, social security number or credit card). This reduces your risk of exposure, and prevents you from inappropriately exploiting your professional status or privileges. Keeping your private online life private is not a small job, however: it takes real effort, knowledge and skill to achieve a reasonably secure level of anonymity (or pseudonymity) online. Some practices you may want to consider:
- Choose a web browser that offers enhanced privacy options, and use it along with a proxy server.
- In fact, get used to using an anonymous proxy server to keep the web sites you’re visiting from tracking your IP address, and automatically delete your search history, cookies, logins etc. whenever you log out and/or at the end of every day, or erase your tracks manually.
- Read up on the basics of Internet privacy by visiting the web sites of Electronic Privacy Information centre and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and follow their blogs for the latest news on technology or policy changes that could affect your online privacy.
Planned: Don’t let a secret life creep up on you. Make sure you’re making clear and conscious decisions about why and how you’re keeping it on the down low. Remember that there’s no such thing at 100% private. Anticipate the possibility of exposure. If you couldn’t handle the legal, professional and emotional consequences of revelation, don’t do it at all.
- Notice the accounts and activities you are taking pains to hide (like the browser window you suddenly close when someone else walks into the room), and make sure you are handling them ethically and responsibly.
- Whenever you make mistakes in patrolling the boundaries of your private online life (like accidentally leaving your browser logged into your secret email account), ask yourself if it’s a sign that you want to change those boundaries.
- If you’re a senior decision-maker, think carefully about any private activities that, if exposed, would affect the share price, reputation or capacity of your organisation.
- If what you are doing privately online would have significant consequences for the people you love, you need their consent.
The point of the 3 Ps is to help manage privacy, not enable sneakiness. There are many legitimate reasons why people keep parts of their life separate or private, whether it’s to find support for a stigmatised problem (like mental illness), community for a marginalized identity (like being transgender) or conversation around an embarrassing interest or topic (like your passion for Rod Stewart). The ability to connect anonymously is one of the Internet’s great opportunities, and following the 3 Ps is the best way to ensure you don’t abuse it. Do not employ these practices for behaviour that is hurtful, unethical or illegal, or to avoid the consequences of bad decisions.
Of course, there is a fourth P in this story. But after all the references it’s received in the Weinergate coverage, let’s allow that P to simply remind us why the other 3 matter.
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