I grew up being very aware of other people’s image of me. My father, being a pastor, was a public figure in a very small town. Someone knew everything I did and often the things that the children of public figures did became the stuff of coffee shop conversation around town. (The daughter of the other Pastor Nelson in town, for instance, had a tattoo of a flower high on her inner thigh long before tatoos anywhere were acceptable, except on sailors. It’s amazing how many people in town knew that little tidbit!) I didn’t find my situation burdensome, nor (for the most part) did I try to create a secret life which remained outside the public view. Having strangers vaguely interested in my life was simply the way I grew up.
In the internet age this ability to watch people and reconstruct their life from digital flotsam has become more worrisome, and in many cases, downright pernicious. And I use the word “flotsam” deliberately. Typically the digital world doesn’t care about the good, much less the benign things we do. In this day and age, news is essentially gossip legitimized by the fourth estate. And broadly speaking, the only thing newsworthy is when a life shipwrecks, creating flotsam for all the curiosity seekers to comb through. A person’s image culled from the internet is typically far more negative than their actual life, given the realities of the modern world.
I am currently taking a Business Communications class (which is clearly misnamed, but this is fine with me — after taking the placement test I was asked to tutor English … and I’ve given a few speeches in my life, so the communications portion of the class is mere review). We’re three quarters of the way through the course and we’ve finally started talking about how to communicate well in a business environment. What the class has focused on until now is how to get the correct job in the first place. We had to take several inventories which provided very sophisticated personality, interest, and value profiles. We created, and revised, and revised again, our résumés. We’ve learned to write effective cover letters. We spent a lot of time learning how to interview, and then getting interviewed both individually and by a panel.
We’ve also talked at length about our image: what is projected in how we dress, how we talk, how we slouch, how we shake hands, and what people see when they google us. (Btw, don’t tell my Business Communications instructor that I just verbed a noun and used the abbreviation btw.) And this last point raises some interesting questions. If a person is largely invisible on the internet, what does that imply? Our instructor theorizes that no internet presence is often worse than a less-than-flattering internet presence. Many Human Resources (HR) departments assume that if someone is curiously absent from the internet, they probably have something to hide. (And let me be clear: This is one instructor’s opinion. I have not done any research on the question; I’m just taking her word for it.)
I do know there are businesses whose sole business is to clean up people’s online image. While it’s impossible to completely scrub the internet , these businesses can make it very difficult to find much of anything at all about a person beyond their credit history, driving record, criminal past, and other matters of public record that were all available to police and private investigators long before Al Gore invented the internet. For a few thousand dollars you too can be “disappeared” from the prying eyes of googlers and HR departments.
Old guys (not in the sense of physical age, but age in relation to the internet) whose ideas of privacy were established before the internet, and who now try to apply those old standards of privacy to the internet age, advocate keeping everything secret and making as little as possible public. Steve Gibson, founder of Gibson Research Corp., is fanatical about privacy and has some of the coolest free programs and apps that will simply make your computer disappear from view. He even has a whole host of work-arounds so that a user can avoid using Flash or Java applications – He doesn’t trust them. The Sovereign Society, a sales organization dedicated to personal privacy, will teach you – for a small fee – how to disappear from the land of the living and exist nearly invisibly, inaccessible from the prying eyes of attorneys, government officials, and ex-spouses. These groups border on the paranoid.
But there’s a whole new approach to privacy embraced by the young turks (in contrast to the aforementioned “old guys”). According to these young turks it’s far better to hide in plain sight. Don’t avoid the public eye; use it intentionally. The best way to keep some HR department from digging too deeply into your past is to make everything in your past that might improve your image easily accessible. To use another well-worn truism, “the best defense is a good offense.” Give the appearance (whether this is actually the case or not) that you are an open book. If the “open book” that prying eyes discover turns out to be a bit bland, boring, responsible, and normal, those snooping around will quickly get bored and turn their attention elsewhere.
Which leads us to another truism of the internet age: Because everything is seemingly so accessible, most people bore quickly of snooping around. Serious, professional snoopers will almost always discover everything – even the stuff you thought was truly hidden. But serious professional snoopers are few and far between … and very expensive. The average snooper will merely find reams of “bland, boring, responsible, and normal, “ assume that this is what you’re really like, and quit looking. (Or, so say the young turks.)
I have had personal experience with a serious snooper. I once did some business with Mark Nestmann. (I’ll make it easy for you. He can be found here, here, and here. And no, I don’t have a second citizenship, nor have I squirreled away my life savings in some far off corner of the world. What I did with Mark was bland, boring, responsible, and normal. … but if it were something else, how would you ever find out?) Before doing business with me, the Nestmann Group asked Burke Files to look into my past to see if I was telling the truth. It turns out I was telling the truth as far as I remembered it, but Burke found stuff that I had forgotten, and even found things I had been looking for but couldn’t find! (… including an insurance policy I didn’t know existed.) I was impertinent enough to ask Burke how much all this “due diligence” cost. He replied that he’d seen my financials and I certainly couldn’t afford him.
I suspect (as do the young turks who recommend that it’s best to hide in plain sight) that Burke Files is the exception that proves the rule. If someone wants to find all the dirt and is willing to pay the price for the dirt, there is absolutely no way you are going to be able to hide it. On the other hand, the best defense against typical snoopers (such as an HR department doing its due diligence before they hire you) is to put your version of the story out there on multiple platforms so that the snoopers quickly get bored with your ordinariness.
Living in the internet age isn’t a lot different than growing up in a small town where everybody’s watching and just a little bit too interested. It reminds me of that old Country Western song (sung by Charly McClain): “Still you wonder who’s cheatin’ who / And who’s being true / Who don’t even care anymore / It makes you wonder who’s doin’ right / By someone tonight / And who’s car is parked next door.” People are going to snoop and people are going to speculate about who’s parked next door. You might as well embrace it for what it is and use Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress as a good offense.