04 May 2010

Schadenfreude, Online Privacy and Me

I had a bout of self-induced schadenfreude yesterday. I wanted a quote for a piece of correspondence, but could only remember a portion of it. So, being the well-trained researcher I am, I Googled it. The first hit was exactly what I needed. And from a website I created in 2004 and subsequently completely forgot about. After some thought, a bit of trial and error and a few visits to the FAQs, I was able to login and delete the site.

Now, there was nothing shocking posted on that site, nothing that could make my mother blush. (One of the nice things about not drinking alcohol is that you never have to worry about people having crazy!drunk pictures of you.) But it was ... young. It also featured some really rubbish early graphic design work, and a picture of an acquaintance whom, I'm sure, is clueless I even have that picture. Had some employer/colleague stumbled upon it rather than me, the worst I could have been accused of was unequivocal glee.

So why did I delete it? Well, okay, the bad graphic design is a bit embarrassing. But I deleted it for two reasons: 1) it was digital clutter I no longer wanted and 2) it's not my place to have a picture of someone I hardly know up on a website without their permission.

1) Digital Clutter.
I'm a librarian. Part of my job is educating people about data privacy. I advocate crafting an online presence rather than willy-nilly posting for the world to see. And when you find something about me online that I didn't post myself, it's fairly reasonable to assume I know about it and don't mind it being there. So suddenly finding this old relic brought me up a bit short; here was some data I'd lost track of. A quick evaluation said it no longer represented my primary interests or provided the service for which I'd originally crafted it (for myself or anyone else). There was no reason to keep it, and deleting it would make it easier for people researching me to find pertinent, up-to-date information. (My argument is a bit specious in this case, since you'd have to have really known me to find it. But the principle stands.)

2) Privacy.
Social networking was in its infancy when I created that site. Tagging was a mere twinkle. I neither advertised my site, nor even told another about it. So when I posted the picture of that acquaintance (100x100 px, baby), it was rather unlikely that a) it would be found or b) recognized. It wasn't embarrassing, and it amused me. But today, an era in which people tag photos of each other, conduct Google searches on themselves and data is cached for long-term storage, our responsibility to others' privacy is a serious one. Forcing someone to opt-out rather than opt-in is just not how I like to do things. And sure, if I'd decided to keep the site up, I could have just taken down the picture. It just reminded me of how much things have changed online since 2004.

So, what did I learn? Keeping track of your data is an on-going process. You never know what might pop up. And be mindful of how you present others online as well. Technologies and opinions change; you have to be willing to leave them behind sometimes.