I am active online: i participate in many social spaces and learning communities. I maintain a number of personal and professional personas, but across them all i tend towards caution when it comes to sensitive data. I tend to trust my bank, but not Facebook. I trust my neighbour more than someone i’ve just met on LinkedIn. I’m willing to be charitable to a stranger i meet in the street in need of a bus fare more so than someone emailing me from Nigeria asking for me to look after some money from them. I trust more in the real world than i do online. I trust people more than organisations. But do i trust too much? At a time when participation in the Social Age drives organisations and individuals to live increasingly online lives, can they keep a secret?
I know that communities rely on trust, that learning is stronger on a foundation of generosity and sharing, that social learning is based upon a willingness to disclose personal information, to engage, to care, but what happens to that data? Who owns these spaces and what do they want to use all this data for? On an individual site or space, someone would get a pretty limited picture about me, but across all my social media spaces, a wider picture emerges, and if you factored in my retail habits and web history, you’d start to get a pretty comprehensive picture of who i am.
Somewhere in my attic are my essays submitted for University: printed out on old fashioned paper. The grades i got, a secret between me and the mice. Not even my dissertation is online. But today, everything i write is archived, backed up, permanent. We’ve seen many times how this permanence comes back to haunt people, but imagine how this will get worse as we engage ever more heavily in organisational social learning at a time when the very nature of work is changing.
One day you are involved in a heated debate, creating a shared story about a future product or service, a year later, in a darker climate, some of that debate is being quoted back to you at a time of restructuring, or being used to share with a manager you may go to work for, or being sent to someone who has asked if you’d be a good fit for their team. You might control what you say in the debate, but you have no control over what happens after that.
Your online life has permanence and we have to consider what happens to all that data. There are already tools that will profile your Facebook life, so prospective employers can vet you. Meta tools that can snapshot your digital self, see who you are connected to, which subversives you talk to, how many of your connections have criminal records or bad debts.
Social learning is effective and engaging: in the Social Age, organisations need to foster innovation and creativity, but we have to take a few moments out to think about secrets, about privacy, about fairness and legality. We can’t wait for the shoe to drop: we have to carefully curate our online selves to maintain some note of caution, but organisations have a duty too, through their social media policies and rules, to be clear what can and cannot be used, or to make it clear what profiling tools they plan to use.
Legal frameworks do not always stop organisations exploiting our data and there is very little awareness or concern within the communities. Better to take a moment to think now than to regret things down the line.