Until about 15 years ago, the bargain was implicit: barring exceptional circumstances, our words would be attributed to us. Write an article calling someone a little emasculated mass of inanity, and accept the consequences, well, like a man. But with the passage of time, all would be more or less forgotten, our most regrettable moments relegated now to yellowing stacks on dusty shelves.
And then: the Internet. When it comes to conversing online, our choices are stark: we either lurk silently, bury ourselves under pseudonyms, or accept that we’re eternally and pervasively on-the-record, just waiting for time to make fools of us.
It’s not hard to discern what we should be doing in light of this unprecedented change in attributional norms: angling for stricter control over how our information is stored and displayed, or at the very least getting the hell offline for another thousand years until we’ve evolved the capacity to develop and follow self-imposed best practices.
But what are we doing? For one, we’re sharing more about our real selves than we think we are. A recent study led by the University of Cambridge’s Michal Kosinski finds that a wide range of private information about individual Facebook users can be accurately gleaned just from the brands and messages we opt to “Like” on Facebook. Age, religion, sexual orientation, relationship status, drug and alcohol use, intelligence, and even personality traits can all be predicted from our litanies of “Likes.”
We don’t need to affirm MENSA membership or our local gifted magnet school to disclose private information either: one of the best predictors of high intelligence was, of all things, curly fries. And even a single “Like” can reveal a surprising amount about us. Consider, for instance, the researchers’ finding that “users who liked the ‘Hello Kitty’ brand tended to be high on ‘Openness’ and low on ‘Conscientiousness,’ ‘Agreeableness,’ and ‘Emotional Stability.’ They were also more likely to have Democratic political views and to be of African-American origin, predominantly Christian, and slightly below average age.”
In addition to delivering eternity a statistical portrait of our lives, we may also be booby-trapping our online identities with information that is innocuous enough today, but thanks to ever-more-helpful search engines, won’t always be. In another new study—this one by Erin Hollenbaugh of Kent State University at Stark, and Marcia Everett at Malone University—researchers scoured the blogs of 154 bloggers for identifying information, as well as any self-disclosures. They wondered if, as one might predict, the more identifying information a blogger revealed, the less likely she’d be to disclose intimate details about her life.
But interestingly the researchers found that one type of identifying information—pictures of (presumably) the bloggers and their friends—had precisely the opposite effect: bloggers who posted pictures of real people actually disclosed more personal information than bloggers who posted other sorts of pictures or no picture at all. “Perhaps bloggers see pictures of themselves and others as simply another means of disclosing information like that disclosed in blog entries, rather than as cues that identify someone’s offline identity,” the researchers mused. In 2013, on the brink of ubiquitous face-recognition (companies are already scrambling, against Google’s sternest finger wagging, to customize such software for the wearable computer Google Glass), the sentiment seems quaint.