Beggar at Ghazi Chowk



30 Nov 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian November 30, 2012. 

The reality that there is a decent amount of data about our lives online means people are now concerned with “maintaining” their online identity. Identifying how you want to appear to others, and correcting where necessary to prevent aberrations from this ideal. You may, for example, have been told to cultivate a personal brand. To find a way to market yourself, establish your worth. I’d rather not, thank you very much. Because I am not a brand, I am a person.

People are talked to, engaged with, learned from and understood. Brands are signed up for or bought into. I don’t want to be signed up for or bought. I don’t want to market myself because I really wouldn’t know how to do it.

The About Me section on my Facebook profile is empty because I’m a little scared of putting in three sentences that might define my being. The only reason I do put some stuff about myself online is the hope that if I put a large enough variety of things about myself in your field of vision it might confuse you enough to prompt you to spark a conversation.

But today we are ready to judge people and form a conception of their identities — that we deem reasonably complete — from their musings on the web. Take a look at some privacy tips from Princeton’s Data Privacy Initiative for some perspective:

“Think before you tweet — today’s rant, burn or flame may come back to haunt you.”

“Remember, what you post online becomes public information — it is no longer under your control.”

“Regularly review your contacts, circles, friends and followers — they may not be your BFFs.”

Is someone on the other end of this terminal waiting to find incriminating evidence about my past?

To hold someone hostage to their tweets is to prevent them from forming opinions, changing their minds or just growing up. We deal with people on the web by bucketing them into categories for bite-sized perception. What we say or do becomes definitive of our personas, with a scary finality to it. The little blips about ourselves are consumed, not engaged with, and they are dealt with a permanency that doesn’t seem to cross our mind when we post the statuses at all.

This is not the Internet I signed up for.

The Internet I signed up for is the one Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, tweeted about from the Olympic Stadium. “This is for everyone,” he said.

That Internet is about bringing us together, about creating more ways to share our thoughts and our lives. There shall be no limitation of distance, space or community. We are all one on the Internet, for this space is collectively ours. It is where we think, where we connect solutions to problems, answers to questions, information to ignorance and people to people.

The very power of communication helps us grow — to become bigger people and better societies, not to find ways of limiting our outlook. This is what the Web is to Lee: “I think in general it’s clear that most bad things come from misunderstanding, and communication is generally the way to resolve misunderstandings, and the Web’s a form of communications, so it generally should be good.”

In some ways I like to think that our state of coexistence should always be conceived as one of perpetual misunderstanding. That is both a realization that we do not know each other completely and a simultaneous struggle to want to do so.

If you look at information on the Internet from this perspective — the idea that everything you see is a window to a larger, more complex identity — we are more likely to engage more meaningfully with people and avoid the trap of consuming this information through set frames of reference. People are more than the sum their links, tweets and photos. And it doesn’t always add up. In the words of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Of course, there are two sides to this story. Just as we need some perspective when receiving information, we must also think about what we add to the Internet as content creators.

Take the uproar on ‘Prince’ comments. There’s some insightful argument from anonymous commenters to University President Shirley Tilghman’s letter. “theturdburglar” writes: “If she takes away the one truly fun aspect of the Prince (ridiculous comments sections that don’t take themselves so damn seriously … ) I would be very disappointed.” It’s amusing that the very next comment by “AH” compares the ‘Prince’ comments section with the public literary sphere of 18th century France. It doesn’t seem like a joke to me. These comments are about bettering our ideas — not stonewalling honest argument.

What we say on the Internet matters, and it should matter. Anonymous or not. Anonymity prevents us from being “silenced,” just as it gives us freedom to publicly hate. Perhaps the best comment I read on Tilghman’s article was by “ ’12”: “I’m not sure that anonymity causes douchebaggery. I think douchebags cause douchebaggery.”

So my concern is beyond anonymity. It is about getting more from our conversations and increasing collective goodwill. We can do better than to pigeonhole and hate.