Saturday, 4 July 2015

Your Online Presence Could Be Your Greatest Creation – David Thorpe

Commodities, when packaged, become branded, and need to be marketed. Writers are seen as purveyors of commodities, if not commodities themselves. Writers are therefore everywhere advised and obliged to brand themselves.

Branding necessitates the adoption of what's called 'an internet presence'. Any number of 'platforms' (no trains ever arrive or leave them) exist for this service. I find myself on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Blogger, Google+, Wordpress, and more.

This happened gradually. I was an enthusiastic 'early adopter'. I went online first in '92, made my first website in '95. I loved Apple in the days when Apple was the underdog. Now it is a monster, which practices the worst kinds of corporate malpractice and ill-treatment of workers.

Whether a writer is published, self-published or unpublished they have little choice but to develop their 'internet presence'. This column is not about the inordinate time and expense this entails, away from the act of writing, but the way we are forced to compromise our privacy and the threats this brings.

All artists have, by virtue of this necessity, to succumb to this invasion of privacy more than most internet users. But writers are possibly more vulnerable than visual artists and musicians since text – our medium – is indexable,

The trade-off for the many free and not-so-free services we use is our data. Corporate surveillance and the danger of identity theft are the handmaidens of our self-publicity. Long ago I abdicated my principles and surrendered anonymity in these respects.

While in the past being a campaigner against state surveillance of individuals, I now find myself powerless to do anything about it. I've given up. The likes of Facebook and Google have won. They, Apple, my ISP, my mobile phone service provider, and many more companies I may never even have heard of, know more about me than I do.

A thought experiment

I dream of the following web-based service: a secure place to which only I have access, that gathers and organises chronologically and geographically all the corporate-held information about me. This would include my financial transactions, my GPS-sourced travelling and my web-surfing. Supermarkets (via loyalty cards) and banks know what I spent, where, and when. Google knows what I searched for, posted and commented on.

Using this data, presented in a convenient map- or calendar-based views, I might discover where I was and what I bought or did on any day of the year back to whenever. If this resource linked to my health, tax and social security records, so much the better.

I'd be empowered to know all the things my memory has lost and which have fallen out of my physical filing system.

Gigabytes of such comprehensive data would enable me to write the most accurate of autobiographies ever. These nuggets would trigger memories of encounters, conversations, people and emotional states otherwise irretrievable.

That information is out there somewhere. It is intrinsic to me and my identity and history. It should belong to me. But it doesn't, and there is no hope of my getting hold of it.

Even if it were possible to source it all and construct such a virtual 'museum of me', some company would have to host it and its security would inevitably be fragile, making me even more potentially susceptible than ever to identity theft.

Such a thought experiment exposes the extent of the data we release and lose. When we click those boxes avowing that we have read and understood the terms and conditions of use, without doing so, we are not only telling a lie, we are sanctioning theft.

Every Facebook and Google click allows algorithm-based constructions of our personalities, locations, and biographical details to become more accurate. Our holiday choices, our friends and so much more are out there.

According to surveys, Germans are the nationality most worried about this. They, after all, know a thing or two about totalitarian conditions. Britons and Americans veer between complacency to undercurrents of anxiety.

The truth is, there is nothing we can do about it as long as we are compelled to use the technology.


We could fabricate an identity. After all, is that not our business as writers?

All brands are public facades. Richard Branson and Steve Jobs have cuddly images but biographies and exposes reveal something very different. Writers should therefore consider their public image as a similar facade.

Despite your human feeling that honesty is a virtue and your public needs to get to know you, bear in mind that, online, between you and your public is an unfeeling and unscrupulous machine parasited by criminals.

Learn from my mistakes. I have done little of the following because I started too early, in the pre-corporate internet days when its chief advocates were anarchists and free-thinkers believing it could dissolve national boundaries and even private property. Yeah right. Those were the days.

Firstly, separate your professional from your personal identities and lives. Give nothing away that could lead anyone to compromise your personal life. Use the security tools offered as a minimum precaution.

Confine your blogs to professional topics. Obfuscate and disguise your personal details just as you do when dramatising a character. Think of your online branding as your greatest fictional creation.

Just as you beguile your book readers with the plausibility and persuasiveness of your prose, see your role as far as possible to convince or confuse the tech companies and hackers as to your real personal nature.

Cultivate mystery. Remain the person behind the mask. Reveal yourself only to those whom you know you can trust.

Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket has done this par excellence, except that he gave the game away when he revealed his real name.

Your online secret identity could be a super heroine, and your most brilliant creation.

Whatever: be aware. Go safely.

David Thorpe (if this is he) is the author of Hybrids, about people merging with technology.


Nick Green said...

My objection is simpler: I just don't have the time. Posting occasional comments in places like this has become the limit of my digital engagement.

Dawn Finch said...

Great post. I seem to spend an increasing amount of time in the virtual world. It eats into so much of my valuable time and I am aware that I need to wrestle that monster back into its cage. With that in mind, I'm off with a pen and a notebook!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Scary thoughts... that someone knows me better than I know myself. Every time I open the internet and see something advertised in the side adds, that is exactly what I've recently been searching for... I'm naively startled!