14 March 2010


The privacy transition

Marina MillerA few weeks ago, my daughter Marina, who's 12, asked me to start mentioning her by name on this website, and when I link to her blog, photos of her on Flickr, the new blog she just set up with her sister, and so on.

Until now, I've been pretty careful about just calling her "M" or "Miss M," because while I'm personally comfortable putting my own name and information on the Web, that's not a decision I should have been making for my kids, especially before they were able to understand what its implications are. (For similar reasons, here on the blog I generally refer to my wife by her nickname Air, at her request.)

But Marina has started to find that annoying, because when she searches for "Marina Miller," she nearly always finds other people instead. She's starting to build herself an online profile—and the first component of that is establishing her online existence.

I was online around that age too, but at the turn of the 1980s it was a very different thing. In fact, no one expected to be themselves: we all used pseudonyms, like CB radio handles. And it was a much smaller, geekier community—or rather, communities. I had no Internet access until the decade was over, so connections were local, and each bulletin board system (BBS) was its own island, accessed by dialup modem, often by one person at a time. The Web hadn't been invented, and the concept of a search engine or a perpetual index of my online life was incomprehensible.

On a recent episode of CBC Radio's "Spark," Danah Boyd, who researches these things, noted that today's adults often look at our online exposure in terms of what can go wrong, while our younger compatriots and children look at it in terms of its benefits, or what can go right. It's not that they don't care about privacy, but that they understand it differently.

Marina is now closer to adulthood than toddlerhood, and her younger sister, at 10, is not far behind. I think that's a bit hard for any parent to accept, but in the next few years both our daughters have to (and will want to) learn to negotiate the world, online and offline, on their own terms. Overprotective helicopter parenting is a temptation—or today, even an expectation—but it's counterproductive. Just like we all need to learn to walk to school by ourselves, we all need to learn how to live our lives and assess risks eventually. I'd rather not wait until my kids are 18 or 19 and only then let them sink or swim on their own.

I think I share the more optimistic view about being myself on the Web because, unlike many people over 40 today, I have been online since even before my teens, and I've seen both the benefits and the risks of being public there. I hope my experience can help Marina and her sister L (who hasn't yet asked me to go beyond her initial) negotiate that landscape in the next few years.

That is, if they continue to want my help!

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Go Marina!

Seriously though, I think it is good that she's aware of the fact that she isn't owning her Google search. Once I realized that my career would be based around the Internet, I started becoming very interested in owning my search results. My name is Jamie Sanford, and there are quite a few of us. I bought my .com and picked up the twitter account, my facebook page name, etc. If Marina wanted to check to see if her preferred username is available on sites across the web, she could use something like this: https://namechk.com/ which will tell you about a whole array of sites.
Interesting. I think it's great that you left it up to her, and great if she wants to establish more of a presence, now.

I will say, though, by way of caution... that there's something to be said for anonymity online. The flipside of her experience of not being able to find herself online, is my experience of completely dominating my namespace online. And while that was great when I was working in the web sector, it's actually a serious issue for me as I shift my career focus over to counseling psychology. I really, really wish that there wasn't so much available about me online with a quick google search, and it's not something that I really thought through when I jumped into the web.

So, I would also argue for some caution. At 12, she likely doesn't know what direction her career might take her, and what the implications of too much online presence might be. Maybe it'll be great, but take it from me, it's pretty much a one-way street. You can't effectively undo it once you've decided to put it all out there.
I certainly know that, Sarah, and you make a good point. I certainly had no idea when I posted my first misspelled Usenet postings in 1990 that I'd still be able to read them 20 years later. But it's also worthwhile taking control of your online presence, otherwise such strange ephemera might be the first thing people find about you.
This is really good information for me because my son, who is 9, really wants to be more public online. He has a wacky pseudonym on Facebook and has just started blogging without his name. But I haven't yet given him the okay to reveal his identity publicly.

While I usually focus on the "avoiding predators" aspect, I hadn't thought so much about the "being visible years later." So this post and comments give me a lot to think about... Thanks for that!

Congrats to Marina. I will go check out her blog now...
I recently wrote consecutive blog entries to celebrate my brother's and my niece's (his eldest daughter, coincidentally) birthdays. Like you with Miss L, I have maximized the degree to which I protect the privacy of my family (it wouldn't take much to find out who my brother is, obviously, since I am so public myself). But I wanted to respect their privacy.

I was really interested in hearing the explanation that Marina gave for wanting to build her presence online. True, most of us worry about the privacy line in terms of what can go wrong instead of what can go right. But I will admit full that while I think it was a good decision to still leave my niece's name out (and my brother's), when I first got publicly exposed in a photo, nothing bad happened. And I am now at the opposite end of the spectrum of privacy (where I am SUPER Googleable).

So, long story made short, good for Marina and good for you for being there and provide her with the information necessary to negotiate the public/private divide.