wenty-seven-year-old Jonathan Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter, first gained recognition when the New York Times wrote a feature article on him. Favreau appeared focused, genuine, and wise beyond his years.
A few months later, after the presidential elections, Favreau became the center of unsolicited attention when a photo of him grabbing the breast of a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton at a party surfaced on Facebook. Was this a reason to think less of the young oratory mastermind who co-penned some of the most influential and inspiring American speeches of his generation?
Is it fair to judge the aptitude and maturity of young people off the information we may find online—such as photos taken, comments written, and parties attended?
Favreau’s Facebook photo debacle epitomizes one of the biggest challenges wired Gen Y’ers face today: how do we successfully maneuver the blurred division between our private, professional, and public lives?
As students, we’re advised to exercise discretion over information revealed online: Don’t write anything offensive. Don’t be photographed drinking if you’re underage. Don’t “friend request” your boss. Keep a low profile; your online sins will come back to haunt you.
As young professionals, we’re pressured to do precisely the opposite: Develop your presence online to establish credibility. Create a profile on LinkedIn. Make a Facebook Fan page for your organization. Use Twitter to publicize your brand. Make lots and lots of “friends.”
We barely exist anymore if we don’t exist online.
What was once “how many years of work experience does this candidate have?” has become “how many hits on a Google search does this candidate’s name receive?” The deeper we dive into representing ourselves through social technologies and media, the less control we have over our identity.
A few months ago, I shared the term “sexting” with a friend because it was the topic of discussion for a youth forum I helped organize. My friend, who had never heard the term before, immediately posted on Twitter: “Thanks to @rupadev for teaching the term ‘sexting’ to mean sex-texting.” In less than a minute, our conversation had been taken out of context and a casual 10 word “tweet” now implies I participate in “sexting.”
I don’t, but how am I to deal with the (now permanent) online implication that I do? Do I clarify each “tweet” that references my username so readers on Twitter don’t misinterpret my character? Do I delete each post written on my Facebook wall that may unintentionally imply something incriminating? Should I remove each photograph with a drink in my hand, because that image may be accessed by a potential employer?
And then there’s the issue of online appropriateness. Who should we share our online profiles with, and who shouldn’t we?
Some time ago, both a former professor and the executive editor of a respected newspaper added me as a friend on Facebook. What was the appropriate decorum in this situation? Should I adjust my privacy setting so they can’t see certain parts of my profile, like my photo albums or wall? Is it appropriate for my former professor to glimpse facets of my life that weren’t shared in our professor-student relationship within the classroom? Will the editor, who I know through an event I planned in L.A., reevaluate my competency when he learns from my Facebook profile that I’m a recent graduate, not the experienced young professional he believes? If I reject these friend requests, will they be offended?
It’s exhausting and counter-intuitive to tailor our online profiles to suit each individual who connects with us online—former professor or otherwise. However, it would be naive to believe we can express ourselves freely online without repercussions. Anything we do has the capacity to end up on the Internet, and we must be mindful of this reality while making everyday decisions.
When the photograph of Michel Phelps smoking pot surfaced online, hordes of enraged voices erupted in the blogosphere, expressing disappointment in Phelp’s unsportsman-like behavior. Snack food company Kellogg dropped his multimillion-dollar endorsement contract, and Phelps had to apologize, stating, “I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in the manner that people have come to expect from me.” In a pre-Internet age, his youthful indiscretions would have made page 3 in the local paper and died a natural death in a matter of days.
I think Phelps and Favreau should be given a break. They are just young people trying to figure out who they are, just like the rest of us twenty-something year olds, except our mistakes are more visible and more permanent now than ever before. Every moment we spend in private can end up in the public eye, thanks to the ubiquity of video and camera functions of mobile devices.
The problem is, our information-crazed world won’t permit us to select only one identity for the many environments we find ourselves thrown in. Our various identities—diligent student at school, sharp young professional at work, obedient daughter at home, outspoken young woman among friends—inevitably intersect because we’re connected with everyone—our friends, colleagues, and family members—online.
This inclusiveness, spurred by intergenerational connections on social networks, has blurred the distinctions between who we share information about our lives with and who we might collaborate with at work. But trying to put our online interactions into neat compartments isn’t easy. I wonder if our definitions of “appropriateness” and “professionalism” need to change in this age of social media. Users of social networks are rapidly changing the rules. Text messages, blogs, chats, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr are making their way into workplace communication.
Unlike a majority of my peers who were interviewed for this article, I don’t utilize privacy settings to prevent my parents or professional network from viewing certain aspects of my online profiles; I’m pretty transparent online.
Of course, I know employers “Google” potential employees, and that anything I say or write on the Internet is forever archived online. And I know my parents and relatives scrutinize every online photo album I appear in.
Regardless, I refuse to spend my time carefully constructing an identity that perfectly pleases whoever sees me online. I’m just trying to keep it real—both online and offline.
As we move towards a more exposed global community, with increased information exchange online and decreased division between personal, professional, and student lives, shouldn’t we be redefining the boundaries of acceptability? It is time we acknowledged the truth that modern technology has made evident: all those identities are us and we are more than the sum of our identities.
Rupa Dev is an associate editor at YO! Youth Outlook/New America Media and resides in San Francisco.
Twenty-somethings and social media
Social media popular with the twenty-something set: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WordPress, Digg, StumbleUpon, LivingSocial, Flickr, Blip.fm, Last.fm, Myspace.
Are you conscious of how you present yourself online?
Shweta Malladi, graduate student, health policy and administration: My Facebook profile is private and it can only be viewed by people I am “friends” with. I am also unsearchable on Facebook.
Samarth Bhaskar, student, political science: I prescribe to the philosophy that if I present part of myself online, I should present all of myself. I am not of the persuasion that there are parts of me I want to hide or censor as part of my online identity versus my embodied identity. I use my cyber-presence as an extension of myself.
Viraj Patel, graduate student, student affairs: While I choose not to utilize privacy settings to restrict what others can see on my profiles, I do heavily monitor what pictures get posted in addition to how I am presented online. I am conscious of the fact that my employers, coworkers, and even some professors have access to my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Jenesha Narayanan, medical student: I will not allow younger family friends and cousins from India to see my pictures on Facebook because they can’t relate to the social culture that I prescribe to here as a 20-something in the United States.
Nick Soni, designer: I keep my social life and professional life separate. Everyone is on Facebook, but people I would like to know professionally do not need to see my full Facebook profile. That is for friends and family.
Arjun Arora, CEO, ReTargeter: I use privacy settings for Facebook. Online presence is all about authenticity. You have to show a little character online; your profiles should represent “you.” But it’s also important to be careful about what you write and share.
Is it important to actively monitor how we appear online?
Shweta: It’s important to know what you are associated with online because this information can affect you, your family, and possible job opportunities.
Viraj: The Internet is a public commodity. The rule of thumb I go by is: If you don’t want the most conservative person in my family seeing this, think twice about putting it up. First impressions, even online, are important.
Jenesha: For many people, your online identity is the only way people will get to know you, so it’s important to make sure you aren’t misrepresented on the Internet.
Pooja Merai, consultant: When we put ourselves on a social media website, we’re opening ourselves to judgment. The purpose of many of these websites is to familiarize yourself with someone, via their profile, and develop some type of judgment on them—whether good or bad. Social media allows us to reflect who we want to be. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. If we’re constantly focused on presenting our best selves, maybe we’ll eventually transform into those individuals.
Do you interact with your parents on Facebook?
Samarth: My parents both have profiles on Facebook and I am “friends” with both. I’m not bothered by their presence on social media websites.
Viraj: My mother, father, and several aunts and uncles have Facebook accounts. Initially, I wasn’t that comfortable with my extended family on Facebook. Now I’m actually a fan of it. I come from a background where young South Asians, traditionally, are presumed to be obedient children while maintaining a “secret life” their parents are unaware of. I really appreciate that my parents can learn more about my life from my online profiles. Social media has brought us closer together and I am grateful for it.
What’s your take on social media?
Samarth: Social media has huge potential as the future of mediated communication. Just as broadcast and mass media (newspapers, magazines and TV) have moved in a direction towards increasing personalization and specialization, I think new media is also moving in a similar path. Not only do services like Facebook allow you to move your offline networks online, in a consolidated space, but services like Twitter allow you to expand your online networks to explore otherwise uncharted territory.
Viraj: Through Twitter, I have met some really incredible people who I’ve learned a lot from. But I’ve also witnessed a worrying trend of obsessive attachment to social mobile applications. People have become so compulsive with checking and updating their social media accounts that their behavior is not only exhausting, but also alienates friends. When I’m around these types of people, I can’t help but think, “Put your phone down and talk to me!”
Jenesha: Social media definitely has long term potential, especially since social media sites are literally at our fingertips with the new wave of smart phones. Social media will take over traditional forms of media such as TV and radio.
Pooja: Social media is how we express ourselves, share ideas and connect for all types of purposes, and I’m grateful for that.
Nick: Social media is a long term creation. It’s becoming more integrated into our digital identities and reflecting more information about ourselves than before. Social networks have invaded our physical realities to such an extent that many people can’t get through a day without updating their latest “status,” or enjoy an event without tweeting about it, or uploading a photo. People would rather record every insignificant minute than experience events in their lives with full focus and attention on the present moment.
Forty-somethings and social media
Social media sites popular with the forty-something set: Facebook, Twitter, Myspace. LinkedIn, Yelp, Ning, Loopt.
Are you conscious of how you present yourself online?
Kalpana Shyam, software developer: It’s our responsibility to always be conscious of what we display on these sites. People do judge and form opinions on what they see.
Sheila Deshpande, Director: I am very conscious. Whenever I write to someone on Facebook and send someone a message I tend to make it private.
Poonam Murgai, Co-founder, VP, software engineering: I am very conscious. I have carefully checked each site’s privacy settings and chosen them accordingly. I believe Facebook is not completely upfront about explaining its privacy settings and plan to drill into it even more. I want to make sure I have exactly the settings I want.
Is it important to actively monitor how we appear online?
Neerja Raman, visiting scholar, Stanford: It depends on what we use social media for. In my case, I use social media for professional work. I use online tools and alerts to stay up-to-date.
Shreekant-Ketaki Gupte, consultant: I think it’s important, but I don’t “Google” myself or anything like that. Instead, I remain mostly quiet online, and hardly ever write on Facebook walls. I mostly just send emails.
Poonam Murgai: People who don’t know you at all definitely try to find out as much by looking at information about you online. I once met a vendor in India we were considering using, and he asked me if I planned to do any photography after I was done with my business. Clearly he had found out everything he could about me online, including my photography. I was impressed with his thoroughness. I think we should be Google-ing ourselves to find out what information is out there about us.
Shubha Bansod, graphic designer: I don’t think it should matter how we appear as long as we are divulging information within our comfort zone.
Amita Dev, marketing manager: Initially, I was very conscious of the fact that my communication with friends on Facebook could be viewed by my entire circle of friends. It is a very different because communication is no longer private.
Do you connect with your kids on social media sites?
Kalpana Shyam: In this day and age, social media is a convenient way to keep up with the small events our day-to-day lives. I am comfortable with communicating with my children on social media.
Navendu Vasavada, hedge fund manager: My children have Facebook accounts and I’m “friends” with them. We almost never interact on Facebook. But they read all my Facebook feeds and notes and discuss them when we talk face-to-face.
Sheila Deshpande: All three of my kids have accounts with Facebook. Initially, they did not want to “friend” me, but lately, the trend has changed. The younger generation does not seem to mind being friends with me on Facebook.
Shreekant-Ketaki Gupte: Both my kids are on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t chat with them online and I don’t think they or I would be comfortable chatting publicly on Facebook!
Poonam Murgai: I don’t have any children, but I connect with nieces and nephews on social networks. I am intrigued by how much young people interact on these networks today. Email seems so old school to them.
Shubha Bansod: It seems most of the daughters are connected with their mothers on social networks, but sons are a bit more resistant.
Amita Dev: My children are on Facebook, and I’m connected with them. I love to view their photo albums on Facebook because these pictures give me a sense on their friends and help me put a face to the people in their friends’ circles.
What’s your take on social media?
Kalpana Shyam: Social media is a way to bridge distances. One has to balance exhibitionism and voyeurism in the interest of serving a greater good. People go through a cycle of spending too much time on social networks, only to eventually find their comfort zone. I can’t rely on social media in the sense that I can’t send a tweet and be assured it was read by the intended recipient. Interaction on social media is way less reliable than email.
Neerja Raman: While social media started as a social phenomenon, it is increasingly being used for business/brand building/customer service. It is a combination of entertainment and education
Shreekant-Ketaki Gupte: Social networks are great outlets for connecting with old friends and alumni. Poonam Murgai: I believe social media has long term potential but it needs to mature. Facebook has 250 million users and a large number of them are interacting with comments, pictures, chat etc. But how is Facebook going to capitalize on its user base?
Amita Dev: Social media is already big and will continue to grow rapidly. However, website hits don’t necessarily translate to ad revenue on these networks, so how will these companies make the big bucks? Also, are we all better off or more informed because we are more connected? To some extent, yes, but there’s a lot of noise and chatter that one has to participate in to be active on these websites.