Curating Yourself Online

What happens when your data is not your alone?

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote to me with a problem. He said his daughter’s name–let’s call her Alice Haynes–was mistakenly appearing on the Internet as a member of a bowling group on the social-networking site Meetup. Because I’m on Meetup’s board, he asked me to get her name removed. I checked on it; as far as I could tell, the Alice Haynes in question was not his daughter, but some other Alice Haynes in another city.

The episode was a small example of how issues of online identity and privacy are changing. In the old days, the issue was keeping your data secret. Now, the challenge is making sure your data isn’t mixed up with someone else’s, and controlling it as it spreads out over the Web. This means managing and curating it.

This story is part of our July/August 2008 Issue
See the rest of the issue

Your presence on the Web is increasingly distributed. And your data is not yours alone; it also belongs to the merchant who sold you that red sweater (size 12), to Juan who took the photo of you on the beach, and to Susan who said things about you. Should I have the right to control what another person says about me? If I am a Yankees fan, and you have given some vendor permission to track you and advertise Red Sox gear to you, should I have no control over the fact that you may see Red Sox ads when you visit my Facebook page? If some other person with my name does something embarrassing, how can I keep my identity separate? (For example, do you want everyone to have some kind of unique ID, or does that idea terrify you?)

All these questions reflect a new dimension of privacy: users’ ability to control their self-presentation. The difficulty of doing this intensifies as advertisers and website owners try to make money from user-generated content.

Joint rights–in this case, those of the individual and the platform owner to information or to presentation–invariably lead to tensions, trade-offs, and conflict. General principles of how to accommodate both owners are useful, but individuals have differing interests and sensitivities. Satisfying them requires contracts, ideally in the form of easily checked-off permissions and restrictions.

Over time, vendors and users together will develop tools and practices to deal with these questions. But current website “privacy” policies don’t suffice. They’re full of abstractions, euphemisms, and generalities, such as, “We may, at any point in time, provide certain Specified Information to selected Marketing Partners … .” Why not list for the user the same specific information that’s being sold to those “marketing partners”–user name, address, credit history, purchasing behavior, and so on? And then list, say, the top 10 marketing partners, and offer the full searchable list on request? Or allow the user to decide which advertisers may “sponsor” her presence on that site? All these options would allow users to make informed choices.

Esther Dyson is an Investor in and board member of 23andme, Boxbe, meetup, wpp group, and yandex, among other companies.

Get stories like this before anyone else with First Look.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.