"Avatar" Life in the Digital Age

I mentioned recently, in light of the turmoil over the WaPo reporter fired because of leaked  emails, that this could be the end of innocence for a generation accustomed to living in public. It turns out not really to be true that if everything is on the record, nothing can be embarrassing. "Will S," a college student whose real identity I know, writes to describe the way he has prepared for this new reality:

The most interesting part of the "anything you write will inevitably become public" reaction is that it falls exactly in line with Mark Zuckerberg's [of Facebook] panned* comments about the end of privacy. Essentially, we have come close now to placing all written work (save handwritten diaries) into the public sphere. Jefferson and Adams famously began to preserve their letters as they (supposedly) came to realize the historical value of what they wrote; how long until e-mail inboxes are archived, to be opened 50 years later?

When I first started into social media, on Wikipedia, I made a set of deliberate decisions about what would be "[his real name]" (wikipedia, Facebook, blog, twitter, tumblr) and what wouldn't be, written under a pseudonym (social media site, Daily Kos, RedState). As a result, I have created two online personas of written work that aren't essentially different people - and because I can't trust that they won't be dug up someday (even the fake name), neither of the accounts is actually "me," but instead only aspects. The pseudonym, for example, is much more willing to be opinionated.

My existence on the internet might be with my real name, but my suspicion is that the vast majority of people are creating Avatars of themselves on the internet, untagging Facebook photos and writing blog posts to fit the image they wish to project. Weigel is jobless because he chose not to maintain the avatar.

* I wrote back to say that I thought Zuckerberg had been justly panned, since he had arranged Facebook with a "nudge"-style bias toward making, tricking, or luring people into revealing more about themselves than they really should. "Will S." replied

Zuckerberg: Certainly tasteless in terms of Facebook's policy approach of making more stuff public by default, and making some info impossible to hide.

I would agree that privacy should be the default, despite the monetary incentives to choose otherwise. Facebook has a responsibility, especially since reactions are muddled given our lack of a established electronic etiquette...

It's also bound up in that trust used to be opt-in; finding out someone's preferences and personal background had to be accomplished by hearing from people individually. Now that we post those things online where they can be shared universally without effort, to deliberately withhold them is a different message of mistrust that we may not feel comfortable sending out. I'm not sure where this market force will lead.

Lastly, I don't know if we want to protect these spaces - electronic communication are already cold and prone to misunderstanding; perhaps it's best to encourage face to face Skype, iPhone, etc. conversations as the definite vehicle for private talks (medium = message, etc). But that leaves out the historic long letter - now relegated to e-mail, where heartfelt messages of emotion and more standard communications like this one are put in the same medium. We still need a paperless way to be formal.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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