Another odd aspect of social networking sites, is the lack of control over how you actually do the networking. As soon as anything to do with your real life is represented or linked to online, you surrender full control over that new identity.
On Facebook, for example, you may have chosen a particular profile photograph which conveys a certain image. It a version of yourself, which you choose to present. And it is a version that is totally undermined when, say, your friends and family start tagging photographs of you dressed as a ballerina at a fancy-dress party.
Duncan O’Leary from Demos mused on the implications of this for job-seekers, late last year. He pointed out that an employer can Google all the applicants for a job, unearthing all manner of embarrasment. Think of the 19 year-old Scottish Parliamentary candidate, whose friends posted pictures of him drunk on various websites. In such cases, the Internet is an annoyingly efficient conduit of information over which you have no control, but the cause and effect are both offline occurrences.
But for an increasing number of people, the online community itself becomes part of who they are. Participating on a forum, or writing a blog, is a leisure activity, Something That They Do. With the coming of the Age of the Internet, we herald an era where we can create idealised versions of ourselves, identities that we can slip into, so we may relax and flourish (indeed, one correspondent of mine claims to have three or four different blog identities). But it seems that this is only possible if one makes a clean break with reality, denying all contact with your offline self, your past. Will the fact that I have an eponymous blog cause trouble for me one day?
As soon as aspects your real life are represented online, that carefully crafted New You is undermined. At the very least, deciding what parts of the Old You are represented online, should be a choice for the individual. It should not be the choice of the individual’s girlfriend’s sister’s flatmate, who stole an impromptu snapshot in that bar, that one time.
The issue at stake here is, I think, starkly illustrated by the story of 13 year-old Casey Knibbs, who committed suicide after being bullied online. If the Internet allows you to create and control the spaces you use for recreation and interaction, how on earth did bullies get in there? Or rather, why was he not able to simply disable (or ‘Plonk’) their comments. It is like being bullied by an imagninary friend.