Friday, 2 March 2012

Sshhh… screens have ears?

Do you worry about what you post online, Tweet, link to or Like? Perhaps we should - the Paul Chambers case should teach us that authorial intention and reader reception can be poles apart, with horrifying consequences.  

More prosaically, people are talking a lot more about 'managing' your online reputation, as this post over at MMU's PR blog discusses (much of what follows is what I said in a comment there). If you're looking for a job - and perhaps applying for a university course, you should expect to be Googled by your prospective employer. We've had students complain that things they've posted on open websites for academic purposes have been used against them in selection processes. I've also advised students that they should take some simple steps to improve their credibility (an email address along the lines of 'sexybitch' prompted a few words about audiences). 

I used to be quite careful myself: I don't use my real name, or that of The Hegemon, though since I've been named in the national press and many of my colleagues and students read Plashing Vole, the horse has rather bolted (I admit it: I'm am Michael Gove). If my name was really common, I'd perhaps be less careful, but as it's very distinctive and rare (there's a professor of medicine and a professor of nuclear physics out there with my name - which makes me optimistic about my promotion prospects), I decided to take up an alter ego. I've also toned down some of my more direct critiques of the institution - self-censorship to keep my job. But on the whole, I'm fairly independent, and I'm lucky enough to work in a sector which prides itself on employing loudly-opiniated oddballs. Left to myself in the private sector I'd soon starve down an alley. 

Having a glamorous secret identity has some advantages: I can talk about situations in general rather than be seen as self-interested, for example, and it offers a degree of insulation. I can maintain a division between my professional life and my online commentary existence - but this is also a drawback. The MMU PR blog, for instance, and many others I read, are written by named individuals: in the world of REF and professional regard which acts as currency in education, I've separated my blogging and academic identities to some extent, reducing my 'impact' and professional credibility. My blogging and tweeting has led to some useful networking, occasional pieces in the national press and other opportunities, but if I was really driven to public engagement, I'd merge Vole and my meatspace identities. 

That last word is the key one for me. Before postmodernism, we all thought that we were simple creatures: our names signalled a coherence and continuity of identity throughout our lives and activities. Modern theory rejects that. Instead, we're bundles of contradictory impulses and subject positions, in which names are ineffectual sticking plasters meant to reassure ourselves that we're the same person 'now' as 'then', at work and at home, internally and externally. The self is a 'narrative', and like all narratives, it has an author and multiple audiences. Remember Harold Wilson? The Labour leader smoked cigars in private but a pipe in public: semiotically, he understood their different meanings and constructed a public narrative (pipe = fatherly, trustworthy) at odds with his private inclinations (cigar = posh, which he wasn't, but he'd picked up the habit from somewhere and didn't want to stop).  

Social media has exposed the truth of this like never before, revealed by the paranoia of those thoughtful enough to worry about their online presence. Our online existences are manifestations of our multiple roles. I don't talk about family and relationships online, for instance - a quick Google would present me as an isolated misanthrope, which is only one (major) strand of my personality. My Twitter timeline reveals a hilarious, sarcastic master of popular culture (well, one can hope), while revealing nothing of my serious work for charidee (but I don't like to talk about that). Plashing Vole is a construction which sometimes makes me seem more intellectual, more hard-working, angrier and more serious than my offline persona (lazy fat bloke waiting to be sacked).  My letters to various newspapers are also performances: constructions of a leftwing academic seriousness which is part of a desire to remain within the expected paradigms of a lecturer (if you're interested in performance as the slippery core of identity, read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: if you borrowed my copy, bring it back you bastard: I spent months carefully annotating that copy and don't want to do it all over again). 

Aside from the philosophical fascination of online/offline identities, there's also a political or ideological tyranny waiting in the winds. The PR blog made the very reasonable point that employers are engaged in surveillance of applicants, and that we should be aware of this. IN practical terms, however, this is likely to be short-lived: if we all become paranoid enough, our online presence will reveal an entire population of teetotal, asexual, church-going bores, just like our CVs, thanks to our careful 'curation' of e-activity. We'll all be working so hard to weed out any sign of personality that we won't have any time for mischief. At which point employers will get wise to this and give up. The other practical problem is that we can only control what we post - we've little sway over what other people post, say about us or interpret what we say. Reputation management is a Sisyphean task. 

More importantly, I worry that dread at the judgement of potential employers means internalising a disciplinary discourse which is unaccountable and ideologically loaded. If we spend every moment worrying about how some recruitment panel will interpret a sarcastic tweet or inebriated photo, we've given in to a hegemonic structure in which the perceived demands of 'business' outweigh everything else in our lives. In a better world, the opinion of Colin from Accounts on the subject of my taste in music, behaviour at parties or political beliefs would be entirely irrelevant. A decent employer should know that they're buying our labour, time and a degree of commitment, and not the whole person: whether you spend your weekends LARPing or wife-swapping in Wakefield (I assume the former leads to the latter int he fullness of time), should be a matter of supreme unimportance. 

By accepting that a Colin in our heads should be allowed to judge us is to voluntarily submit to the judgement of an élite which shouldn't be given control over our rich and complex lives. I shouldn't have to care whether Colin 'gets' sarcasm or not. I shouldn't have to police my opinions based on the reaction of an authority figure who hasn't the time or skills to properly contextualise a throw-away line about a subject of which he knows little. I should be able to get drunk and (one day) urinate on Margaret Thatcher's grave without worrying about how some corporate suit might misinterpret a moment in my past. 
If we unquestioningly internalise the discourses of corporate authority, are we free in any meaningful fashion? 

Your thoughts?

(PS: this is what Media Studies is about). 


Sarah Williams said...

No I disagree. This is not about producing a corporate sanitised view of yourself, on the contrary, speaking to agency heads at a PR industry event last night it is clear that they are looking for personality and colour in digital footprints - this is a creative industry after all. The issue here is about which sides of our personalities we choose to share online; you, for instance, do not reveal your identity, others develop multiple identities to deal with different elements of their personalities and I am sure that psychologists could have a field day with that.

But the issue for PR students is not how they can produce meaningless corporate profiles but how they can develop meaningful profiles which reflect their hobbies and interests as much as their lunch choices. Employers, at least those that I have spoken to, want fun-loving individuals, and want to see online profiles that reflect many different facets of an individual.

So this is not about hiding parts of your identity to tow the corporate line, this is about using the technology wisely to reflect who you are. And that's pragmatic not philosophical.

Ewarwoowar said...

Is the secret finally out?

About time too. For those of you who don't know, may I finally reveal to you all who "Plashing Vole" actually is?