Can You See the Real Me?
When we choose to engage with social media, we commit to an ongoing series of choices about our online social personas. Our every tweet or status update becomes a token by which others will judge us. The photos in which we are tagged are used as evidence of our character and the people with whom we Link In feed a new sort of phrenology, as though our destinies were predetermined by the topology of our business contacts.
This social world of avatars using our names and speaking for us is not the same thing as the social world our bodies inhabit. The self-aware understand perfectly well that our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls present distorted shadows of ourselves. In these abbreviated posting forms physical body language, tone of voice, and breadth of context are gone, of course, but so are many of the literary flourishes that can substitute for them in longer and more considered formats.
The term “personal branding” refers to a conscious manipulation of this distortion in order to project strategically limited personas on social media. By fracking our complex personalities we can extract, commodify, and bring to market certain skills or knowledge. Any impacts on the non-commodified parts of our personalities are jettisoned as economic externalities. Personal branders hide most of themselves away so as not to distract from the Brand Formerly Known as a Person.
But distorted shadows can reveal as well as hide. For the shy, social media can be freeing, allowing more room for expression than in-person interactions. The social media douchebag who twists every post to self-promotion may unknowingly be sending signs that in the offline world he or she also treats other people as currency to be spent in career advancement.
By and large, we make our own choices on social media. We accept and own their outcomes, for better or for worse. But what happens when the social media choices others make have outcomes for us that spill into our offline lives? What if our social personas become branded in ways that have nothing to do with any part of our personalities at all? Is there a code of ethics that governs how we are expected to act, and react, online?
Weinergate, Two Years On
A brief interaction in the street, at a grocery store, or in a bar may technically be public, but usually it’s a relatively private form of publicity. Few people see it, and often fewer know who the participants are. An analogous interaction through social media happens in a world that is broadcasted, observed, and recorded. It is a very public form of personal interaction.
Two years ago, I wrote about the ongoing impacts just such a brief interaction on social media was having, and explored exactly what is the difference between a mediated online experience and the same experience unmediated and in-person. I remember clearly how I clicked “publish” on that story The Digital Ethics of Weinergate just before getting to the car to go to my own graduation from the MCDM program.
The “Weinergate” saga began when New York congressional representative Anthony Weiner sent a photo of his underwear-clad, and clearly enthusiastic, penis to a follower on Twitter. Although quickly deleted, the photo was saved by a third party who saw it and shared it with a partisan political website that was all too happy to bring Weiner’s congressional career to an end with a sexting scandal.
My initial interest in the Weiner story wasn’t any sort of high-minded analysis of the role of social media in it. I was drawn to the story for the same reasons most people were: It was titillating, it involved the humiliation of someone in power, and a guy named “Weiner” publicly sharing a photo of exactly that is the stuff of which juvenile humor is made.
I was surprised however to find out that the recipient of the New Yorker’s photo was not only from Seattle, but a college student of journalism. Curious about the connection between her and the congressional representative, I Googled her name and looked up her Twitter account. What I found surprised me.
It appears that the recipient followed Weiner on Twitter, not because she was looking for some hot online action, but because she liked his political stands. (She has also since moved to New York, suggesting she may also have been looking to acquaint herself with what she intended to be her future home.) As my original piece detailed, both she and Weiner himself maintain that he sent the picture out of the blue, without any previous sexual interaction leading to it.
While the conspiracy-minded may have a hard time believing that, Weiner’s statement came only after he had admitted to consensual sexting with a number of other women who were also publicly named during the ensuing brouhaha. In coming clean about these other instances, Weiner even admitted it was likely that his political opponents would uncover more if they kept digging. This shift from his initial position of denial and coverup suggests that Weiner took this oft-given advice to heart: In case of social media meltdown, lay all your cards on the table, hide nothing, and ask for understanding.
It would make no sense for him to be so honest about the other women, while spinning a new fabrication concerning the original photo. The risk of continuing to lie under the circumstances would be too great for a politician desperately trying to save his career. So it appears that Weinergate began with a brief, unsolicited interaction that was intended to be private via Direct Message, but accidentally was broadcast on Weiner’s public Twitter stream.
The second part of my original article explored the perceived difference between flashing your bits at someone with whom you are sharing physical space, and doing it online. Before Chatroulette instituted account logins tied to email addresses, it helped make abundantly clear that the world is filled with guys who want to show you what they’ve got online, but (at least one would hope) probably aren’t doing the same thing as freely on the street, at the grocery store, or in a bar. As a society, we may not be entirely accepting of mediated exhibitionism but we do seem think it’s less abhorrent than its physical counterpart, perhaps due to the removal of a sense of immediate threat.
Weiner may have struggled to find the proper way to manage his social media crisis, but the woman who found herself pulled into the story handled it beautifully once it became clear there was no easy escape from the maelstrom. Her response to having her personal privacy shredded was to declare herself “collateral damage” and fight back. Even when tricked into speaking to a reporter from a tabloid paper, she used Twitter as a platform to try to set the record straight. This is what I found far more interesting than the indiscretions of a politician, and what led me to write my piece.
But while I admired what she was doing I knew the memory of the Internet is effectively eternal. I wrote “The worst of it will fade quickly, but there’s always going to be someone who will remember something about her and the scandal that ensued and the evidence of the scandal will always be archived somewhere just a few mouse clicks away.”
Weiner Raises His Head Again
When I saw a headline a couple months ago that Anthony Weiner had ended his political exile and declared his candidacy in the New York Mayor’s race, the first thing I did was Google the name of the woman who he’d sent the picture to. As I expected she was already being mentioned and her photograph published in the more sensationalist news sources to cover the story. And, also as expected, there was no context provided. Ms. Collateral Damage was, once again, on display as though she had been a femme fatale who actively lured the Weiner to his fate. The mentions picked up even more when it was revealed that Weiner had continued his sexting habits even after resigning his Congressional seat, using the spectacularly ridiculous nom de tweet “Carlos Danger.”
Thrust back into the public eye for something she never did, her Twitter feed continued to show the same pugnaciousness it had during the first media frenzy (sources not given due to ethical questions raised below):
- Today I learned, from multiple media outlets, that I moved from Seattle to escape the scrutiny of people in my city… good to know.
- I emailed a journalist this morning who inaccurately referred to me as a “sexter” in an article…& then…he changed it. I’m in shock.
- From now on every time a journalist, reporter, tv producer, etc contacts me for an interview, I’m forwarding my résumé. #HireMe!!
In my original piece, I expressed my own discomfort with using the woman’s real name, though I decided to do so under the rationale that it was already all over the Internet. This isn’t a legal question — she is at this point clearly a public figure — but it is an ethical one: What value does it add to further associate her name with a situation she played no active role in creating?
As my interest in this new phase of the story picked up, I discovered I’m not the only person wrestling with the ethics of naming Ms. Collateral Damage. In October 2012, a discussion on the talk page for the Wikipedia article Anthony Weiner sexting scandal culminated in a decision to edit the article so it continues to name the women who admit to actively sexting with Weiner, but omits the name of the innocent bystander who makes a compelling case for her innocence.
On the other hand, as part of her campaign to set the record straight during the initial tumult, she did grant an interview with The New York Times. However, a more recent article on the long-term impact for several women associated with Weiner’s sexting contains no direct quotes from her and I suspect it have been written without her participation.
What drew me to this story in the first place was the object lessons it provided in social media reputation management. When control of how others view your social media persona is ripped from your hands, what recourse do you have?
But now that the story’s come back around, validating the prediction there would be no easy disassociation of the woman’s name from Anthony Weiner’s actions, I have a more personal question for myself. If I truly believe that she did nothing that should make her an open public figure with no expectation of privacy, should I go back and redact her name from my original piece? Is that even an viable option for me, since I have no editorial authority on the Flip the Media blog?
I have no illusions that anything I’ve written will ever garner a fraction of the views of the NYT stories, nor that they would ever consider going back and removing her name from them. Even if they did, that wouldn’t prevent her from being dogged by the scandal for the rest of her life anyway.
Ultimately, the story of Weinergate’s collateral damage tells us that online interactions create a new space that is not recognizably “public” in the constitutional “town square” sense, but is also not private in any familiar sense. At a societal level, we have yet to come to a common code of ethics guiding how we interact and relate to each other in this mediated space.
I believe that what makes for healthy communities is truth. Not just the high-minded truths that fuel our highest aspirations, but also the low-minded truths about things we do but don’t want publicly attached to our names. As inappropriate as it may seem for a member of Congress in his 40’s to engage in sexting, a 2012 study suggests nearly 30% of teenagers have done it. Records of these indiscretions will inevitably crop up to dog some of these teens in their future lives.
Towards a Code of Ethics
An online code of ethics should be motivated by a desire to create healthy online communities. It should be grounded in behaviors that protect honesty. It should level the playing field so the individual is emboldened to speak truth to power, rather than be cowed into retreat.
- We should recognize that as the boundaries between public and private change, so too will society’s acceptance of behaviors that were previously little-seen. Today’s scandalized gossips will give way to tomorrow’s jaded bystanders.
- We should defend ourselves when we are libeled. When wronged, we shouldn’t try to be nice online just for the sake of being perceived as nice.
- We should have opinions and we should express them and stand up for them, rather than settle for bland inoffensiveness. Our best comes from unflinching honesty and the pursuit of the right thing to do for others, as well as ourselves.
- We should not sacrifice our true personalities to create branded simulacrums online. What makes us interesting is our many facets, not just the ones that we use to make a living.
- We should always remember that social media gives us power over the reputations, and future lives, of others. Cavalier smears, no matter the motivation, make us all weaker not stronger.
- We should recall a superb bit of guidance from the pre-social media era. Online as well as off we would do well to honor Bill and Ted’s core philosophy: “Be excellent to each other.”