An array of social media platforms originally designed to generate capital for the companies that host them are now being used to create a different form of capital: personal reputation capital. The users generating this new form of online capital are using it to secure employment, to personally satisfy themselves, or to build a following that can be used to influence others. This has led to self-conscious and methodical release of personal information online.
The Decision to Participate
There are many factors that guide an individual’s decision to publicly engage with social media and non-restricted Internet content platforms. One is the individual’s comfort level with sharing details about their lives with the world at large. In the pre-Internet era, it was common for knowledge of personal information to be limited to one’s friends, family, and professional contacts; outside of a telephone number and home address, little was (or could be) known about strangers. For many who grew up in that era, the idea of openly sharing the details of one’s life, passions, and opinions was difficult to embrace. And indeed, for many of that cohort, this remains true. Beyond the cultural reluctance to make the personal public, daily reports of one of the 21st century’s signature crimes — identity theft — understandably make some shy about joining the online sharing culture.
Several years ago, straddling the fence about joining Facebook, I was tempted to join by trusted friends who had already signed up. Even after joining, I declined to post a photo of myself, opting instead for an anonymous avatar. As I used the service more, my level of comfort increased and I relented, eventually posting an actual portrait. As additional social media platforms debuted, I was faced with more decisions about how much of my life I wanted to share with the connected world. With Twitter, as with Facebook, my initial instincts were to participate with caution; my first foray with that platform was via a private account in which my tweets were visible only to declared followers. Again, as my comfort level grew, I relaxed my personal restrictions and switched to a fully public account.
As I evaluated new platforms, I found myself wrestling with the merits and potential downsides of additional public exposure. At about this time in 2009, I found that others were writing about this same deliberation, filling the pages of newspapers and online publications with similar concerns. One competing view was that in order to better control one’s online representation, the best course of action is to participate fully in online culture and fill any online voids so as to ensure that you’re in control of your information, not someone else. Stated more recently,
There are two types of information available online: data posted by a [person], and things someone else posts about [them]. Think of the former as a “digital footprint” and the latter as a “digital shadow.” Don’t let a shadow dictate what [others] will find out. Why? Because it gives control to someone else, which can be dangerous. (Salpeter, 2012)
I adopted that outlook six years ago and began my efforts to select and curate what information I publish online and where. It’s become common in the intervening years to conduct this kind of personal “brand management,” particularly for those who do it with an eye towards future employment.
The online self is used as a marketing and promotional tool to brand an individual as a type of person; success on virtual platforms then becomes online social value [that can translate] to real rewards in the offline world. (Deckers and Lacy, 2011)
Your Online Reputation Precedes You
Many employers now use publicly available online activity as part of the candidate evaluation process. According to a 2014 study by the recruiting software company Jobvite, 93 percent of hiring managers review a candidate’s social profile before making a hiring decision (Davidson, 2014). The report stated that the social media faux pas most likely to lead to a decision to reject a candidate include (in descending order of importance) references to illegal drugs, sexual posts, profanity, posts about alcohol or guns, and political views. Even poor online grammar counts against applicants.
Though it happened gradually over the course of years, societal expectations for individual online participation seem to have shifted. For certain careers, not having an extensive personal online record may actually be regarded as a professional deficiency. (How can an accomplished individual not leave a comprehensive online record?) As a greater fraction of our personal and professional lives take place online, this trend is likely to grow.
The idea of what author Cory Doctorow called whuffie, or reputation capital, isn’t the first instance of personal information being thought about as a commodity. Where whuffie is all about reputation, the act of sharing personal and intimate information is itself another kind of social capital.
Information about yourself is like currency. The amount you spend on a person signifies how much you value the relationship. And that person compensates you in kind. That’s why it feels like theft when someone tells your secrets or data miners piece together your personal history — using your browsing habits, online purchases and social networks — and sell it. (Murphy, 2014)
While members of modern society work to build their whuffie, sharing ever greater levels of detail about themselves online in pursuit of a job, recognition, or self-esteem, they may be sacrificing something more basic in their personal lives that, once lost, can’t be retrieved. What it will ultimately mean for all of us has yet to be seen. One thing is certain: choosing to opt out of online social sharing is increasingly impractical for anyone who wants to be a full participant in the knowledge worker economy.