November 27, 2012

Taking Ownership of Your Digital Identity

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For perhaps the first time ever, my Facebook news feed lit up in a show of collective activism this past weekend. Not over a political or social cause, mind you, but rather solidarity regarding the sale and use of information shared over Facebook. In light of proposed changes to the site’s privacy policy, Cornellians perceived a threat to their ownership of their digital identities.What the news feed activists don’t realize is that they never owned their Facebook data to begin with. For the entirety of our time at Cornell, we have invested time and effort sharing photos, messages, events and information over social media without regard for the consequences. Instead of naively claiming faux copyright over what we share, our generation must consider whether we share too much and if expanding our digital identity comes at the expense of our actual livelihood.The posts that inundated my news feed all asserted individual copyright over Facebook content and notified Facebook that written consent was required for use of the content for commercial purposes. The posters wrote that such clarification was necessitated by Facebook’s initial public offering and subsequent change in privacy policy.Of course, one cannot undo or modify the terms and conditions for use of Facebook they agreed to when signing up. Facebook did modify its privacy policy, but not significantly and irrespective of the transition to public ownership. That the posts spread as they did, even within the Cornell community, defies the conventional wisdom that an individual wall post would not come to Facebook’s attention nor be of legal consequence. The common concern of so many, however, reveals an inherent misunderstanding on the part of Facebook users. Such a misunderstanding raises questions about the efficacy of current mechanisms for conveying and signing terms and conditions for website use.In order to fully appreciate the ramifications of misunderstanding Facebook’s privacy policies, it’s necessary to appreciate how much we use the site. The overwhelming majority of Cornellians are among the site’s 845 million monthly active users. According to researchers at the University of Gothenburg, the average Facebook user logs in 6.1 times and uses the site for 75 minutes per day. That’s the equivalent of a lecture a day on Facebook, although we all know time spent on Facebook and time spent in lecture isn’t zero-sum. The blog Digital Buzz further notes that “48% of 18 to 34 year olds check Facebook right when they wake up.” Facebook doesn’t merely consume time, but also effort; we prioritize and stress over our digital lives from the incipience of the real day.The 8.75 hours per week the average user spends on Facebook are significant when compared to the other activities Cornellians spend time on. According to the 2011 PULSE Survey, on average Cornell students spend approximately 15-16 hours per week in scheduled class and labs, less than five hours per week engaged in physical fitness activities and around five hours per week on extracurricular activities. Further, over half of Cornellians do not work for pay and almost 60 percent perform no community service in an average week. When it comes to our time at Cornell, Facebook takes precedence over exercise, involvement, income and the community. Of course, some time spent on Facebook is concurrent with other activities, but in multi-tasking we turn our attention from the real world to the digital one.With all the time and effort we invest in Facebook, it makes sense that users would want to assert their copyright over what can only be understood as an extension of our identity. Facebook indeed accumulates a wealth of information about its users and has considerable latitude in its use of the data. Inevitably, we voluntarily elected to share personal information and now face the consequences. Facebook has been genuine in attempts to spread awareness of its privacy policy, and will continue to do so as more and more Americans become attuned to their digital rights and responsibilities.What many of us don’t realize is that, increasingly, what we share becomes our identity to the outside world. The Federal Trade Commission has authorized firms to conduct social media background checks of proposed hires, and they increasingly choose to vet your friends, pictures and commentary. Aspiring students aren’t free from scrutiny; Inside Higher Ed reported on a survey that showed “the percentage of admissions officers who reported that something they found there [on the internet] had negatively affected an applicant’s chances of admission increased in the last year from 12 percent to 35 percent.”Perhaps more importantly, our use of Facebook has personal consequences. A study co-authored by Cornell Professor of Communication Jeffrey Hancock showed the use of Facebook can positively affect student self-esteem because it shows things that reflect well upon the user. Another study, by Cornell Professor of Sociology Matthew Brashears, showed that while Americans have increased their networks through social media, the number of people we count as close friends has actually declined. To me, the implications of the Cornell studies are that we immerse ourselves in our positive digital identities, moments and friendships while sometimes ignoring and forsaking our actual selves.Ultimately, something positive can come out of the fact that many Cornellians fell victim to a Facebook copyright hoax. We can channel our concern about ownership of our digital identities into an effort to delineate those profiles from our actual selves. There is much that can be gained from sharing over social media (for example, column readership) and its use to facilitate and enhance our interactions is extremely promising. But we must take care to not let its use supplant our actual interactions, because we don’t ultimately own or control our digital identity.We don’t have the ability to delete what become Facebook’s proprietary pictures, opinions and music choices from the collective Internet memory. What we do have is the opportunity to make wise life choices and selectively represent ourselves on Facebook by being smart in what we share; Facebook can only share the information you volunteer. Think about limiting your use of social media so that it complements, not replaces, your activities, interactions and future prospects. In doing so, you’ll be copyrighting your right to represent yourself as you wish and avoiding having your digital identity come in the way of sharing your true self.

Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg