Saturday, December 12, 2009

Is Online Openness A Bad Thing Or Does It Make Us Better?

Earlier this morning, I wrote a blog asking people's opinion on Foursquare and whether it is a good idea to put your home address out there. This led into another question about online privacy.

The phenomenon of showing where you are and what you're doing has me asking why? Why would anyone want other people to know what they're doing and where they're going?

In a playful sense, I can see how close friends and family may use Foursquare to keep tabs on each other. As a concerned parent, I see value in knowing that my son or daughters (assuming they are teen aged) are located where they should be. The service could potentially save a phone call or unnecessary trips home.

However, the flip side suggests that even those less close may end up knowing more about you than they should. Would I really want a stalker to know where my daughters live or where they're going? The answer is "No!"

This line of thinking leads me to ponder how deep the rabbit hole really goes. Remember, many crimes are crimes of opportunity. If I were a robber (which I am not) and I knew a certain family would be away camping, I might use this information to gain entrance into the home and clean the place out.

I suppose with each positive invention, there are those who may use it for evil. But then, I wonder if transparency (or better yet 'visibility') is a form of protection. Let's take for example the news media. In a number of movies, we learn that by revealing a terrible crime to the press, a certain level of protection surrounds you.

Does visibility on social networking sites deliver a level of protection? Is Robert Scoble, Louis Gray, Jesse Stay, or Wayne Sutton more protected because of their online status? Does popularity make you immune to certain crimes or just a bigger target?

For me, online visibility is happening whether we like it or not. Today, one can Google any number of facts about another human being. We can find phone numbers, email addresses, employers, and even our own online activities.

I believe we can take control over our online lives or become victims of it. By using social networking tools, we can create an identity that either benefits us or hurts us.

Knowing that we are being watched, means that we can lead by example. We can focus our energies on bringing attention to issues, causes, businesses, people, and products that others cannot. It also means being on ones best behavior even when we think nobody is looking. That's a good thing, right?

Sure, deciding when to turn it off may get hard when you're on celebrity status, but for the rest of us, we can decide how much to show and how much to keep private. In each of the most popular tools, there are ways to control what information is shared with others.

However, as we find in Tiger's case, the weak link may not be in our hands at all. What are other people willing to do, say, show, and share about you? Once leaked to the world wide web, pictures, movies, and even words are hard to get back in the bag.

Let's take this opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of online visibility and transparency. Knowing that our society is changing and everything we do is at risk of exposure, does it make openness bad or good? As a result of this, are we destined to change and become more wholesome or just create new ways to hide?

Until next time...

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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