Thursday, March 08, 2007

I... but... [mouth agape]

I think there's something understandable about being held accountable for the trail that you leave through cyberspace -- your choices about what to write, post, share about yourself and your opinions (see prev. here). But the idea that your employment prospects, and even personal safety, can be affected by the content of discussions about you, including abusive rants, sexist drooling/stalking, and other infantile harrassment, just... boggles my mind. The linked post is lengthy, but the behavior it details is really shocking.

(via Medley)


Medley said...

I don't understand what being "held accountable" means when you say that.

I was a pro-life religious whackjob as a teenager -- if the Internet had been around, I probably would have posted about it and it would be in google right now. Am I supposed to be "held accountable" for those opinions today? If not, what's the statute of limitations?

People do actually change and grow. People have bad days. People converse while angry or upset or depressed or joyful or whatever.

Context should matter. Instead of lamenting that it doesn't and never will and everyone should just write and speak as if it never will, we could instead promote a more sophisticated and mature way of dealing with the barbaric yawps of a free society.

Decontextualizing someone's thoughts and writings in order to hold them accountable in perpetuity borders on thought police to me. Not to mention it stifles opportunities for personal development and change. Why bother to change from being a pro-life religious whackjob if the accepted way of doing things is to assume that I'll be "held accountable" for that forever?

And, if one is inhibited from exploring thoughts, ideas, and opinions because of this "accountability" then *how* will one ever have the opportunity to grow and change?

ACM said...

I think you are misunderstanding my point. I just mean that it's more reasonable (or at least understandable) that somebody make a judgement of your personality or qualifications based on what you yourself have written (although they should, for their own benefit, take into account the passage of time and possibility of change) than to somehow pass judgement on you based on what *other* crazy folks are saying about you in an anonymous free-for-all. I may not share all the opinions of my adolescent self, but I'm a reasonably continuous person, and I could explain the evolution by which I came to change my views. There's no way I could make any meaningful defense against baseless slander and ad hominem attacks of the sort going on in the described law list.

I agree that this issue of a lasting public record is going to require a different way of approaching permanently recorded ramblings. For one, people are going to have to learn to be a bit forgiving of adolescent excess, of whatever type, rather than presuming that if it's on Google, it's your current stance -- this may become easier as the Facebook crowd becomes part of the management/establishment. In a similar vein, people will need to learn to read for context -- not only to "get past" a swear word embedded in an otherwise thoughtful argument, but also to recognize the difference between the language and culture of a professional journal, the same features of a high-profile political blog, and, say, the norms in a tightly knit discussion group. Whether the average manager (or even reporter) can be expected to invest the time to tease out the differences is still to be seen, but there are some hopeful signs, some folks that already "get it."

This problem isn't unique to the Way Back record -- recent kerfluffles at I Blame The Patriarchy showed that people dropped into a (not-for-beginners) feminist forum without any background in the subject matter can get inappropriately bent out of shape and/or wrapped up in aspects of the discussion that the rest of the group is taken as given. Again, however, it takes a certain level of responsibility and commitment to read a page-long FAQ (or a heap of back posts) before venting through the easily available comment link....

Anyway, this post was mostly about my first point above, and not about the larger argument of Permanent History. (I certainly think the hounding of the Edwards bloggers was stupid and unhelpful, even if foreseeable to some degree.) I do think that, especially at the current moment, when more sophisticated understanding of the wider Web is quite limited, we have to take some responsibility for what we willingly put out there -- not for its factual perfection or for its likelihood of representing our opinion for all time, but for its being something that we are sincere about and willing to have associated with us (again, within the limits of human frailty). If you were a sincere wingnut, so be it -- hopefully the quality of your arguments for your position would either have been high or be easily attributable to your age and circumstances. Sure, we all have bad moods and the rest, but we also have a filter in what we air (at least, most adults do). I spent years on a haiku workshop list in which critique, even the most constructive, could easily elicit hurt feelings and angry responses; it was a pain, but it did teach me ways to be diplomatic with criticism, the nonproductiveness of feeding trolls, the utility of the occasional apology, and so forth. Much of the same applies in the land of blogging. (Private email is a bit of a different realm, and this is much of the reason why I refuse to use gmail for my personal business.)

Anyway, I certainly agree with you on the ideal. Only time will tell whether such understanding and reasonableness will emerge; meantime, I suppose everybody has to decide for themselves what they will and won't let loose in the current.