For most of history, anonymity was the goal, especially in the U.S. Americans love their privacy. We have taken pain staking efforts to protect our right to privacy. The idea that people could know things about us, without our consent goes against everything we’ve stood for. For the entire 20th century Americans, and I suspect most of the world, tried their best to control what people could know about them. Much was done to limit personal information, for fear that too much information in the hands of others could be used against us.
In George Orwell’s classic book 1984, Big Brother learns of Winston’s fear of rats and makes him betray Julia, the woman he loves, by threatening him with rats.
The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.
” The worst thing in the world “, said O’Brien, ” varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”
He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.
” In your case “, said O’Brien, ” the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.”
Winston was petrified of rats. Big Brother knew this and used the information to control him. For most of our existence we’ve felt this way and Orwell’s scene brilliantly portrayed those fears by highlighting the most extreme examples of private information being exposed. Our country was founded on the idea that governments were corrupt and that our right to privacy was paramount to our protection. (There is still debate in the legal world on weather there truly is a “right” to privacy and whether or not it is protected by the 14th amendment.) But despite our history, privacy will not be our legacy. Anonymity is quickly becoming a liability not an asset.
Despite the best intentions and vision of our forefathers and Orwell, they could never have seen the Internet. The internet is creating a world and a culture where being invisible will make people just that invisible.
As more and more people join social networks. As sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn grow in popularity, they are being embedded into our daily lives. Not for entertainment but as part of day to day social and work routines. We are embedding these sites and others into our lives, and our work. We are beginning to rely on social media for our news, for our jobs, and for our relationships. The utility of social networks is growing and growing fast. This mass rush to join and use social networks is creating an interesting conflict; private vs. public and private is going to lose.
With more and more people available on line, via Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogs, Twitter, Beebo, etc. It is becoming common place to Google someone before engaging them. People are Googling each other before going on dates. Recruiters and employers are searching LinkedIn before they reach out about job openings. College admissions are reading Facebook and Myspace pages during the admissions process. Blogs are creating new industry leaders and experts. The number of followers a person has is beginning to have credibility. We are beginning to rely on the information we get about each other before we make decisions or engage one another. And if we can’t find information online, if someone doesn’t have some sort of online presence we dismiss them. Being invisible is beginning to have a cost, a big cost.
Moving forward, holding on to your information, tightly controlling what and when people can learn about you will put you at a decided disadvantage. The need to protect ourselves from the Government and misuse of information is quickly being usurped by the benefits and need to promote ourselves in order to compete. Our efforts need to move from protecting our privacy, to managing our privacy. The focus now needs to be on developing a strategy for our personal brand. We now have to learn self-promotion. We have to learn what information to share, how often, and in what channels. We have to be able to consciously share publicly about ourselves, who we are and the value we bring. We have to learn how to build and manage our personal brands by divulging our personal information. We are moving into an era where personal brand is as important as corporate brands. It won’t be OK not to have a brand. It won’t be OK to be anonymous.
Anonymity had its purpose and it’s place. But things are changing. Today and even more so in the not so distant future, anonymity will mean invisible, literally, and nothing good will good come from not being seen.