Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social networking and maintaining a professional image – an update

Last December (on 12/20/2010) I posted an entry to Social Networking and Business in this blog titled Social Networking and Maintaining a Professional Image – a brief guide. I noted at the time that what we say and show about ourselves online never simply shows briefly or just to a small and intended audience. It all persists and becomes part of our general online record and it all impacts, for the good or bad on how others perceive us. That includes potential hiring managers and employers if we are looking for a new job. That can and increasingly does include basically anyone who would want to know more about us and what we are really like. If it goes online, it lasts and it can be found and whether we post it ourselves or someone else posts it online “for us.” And this brings me back to my earlier posting and to a recent story in the news.

• Towards the end of my December, 2010 posting I stated, even then with some reservations that “You can clean up your social media presence and the story you share about yourself through it, if you find things that you now would not want to have representing you.” That is still partly and even significantly true insofar as we do have control over what we write and add in as images on our own social networking profiles, blogs and other online forums – and we an edit and correct to remove or correct content we come to see as problematical. We can ask friends and acquaintances to remove currently live content about us that we find problematical. But older versions never completely disappear, with archival versions persisting, even if they are a bit more difficult to find. But that is not the only factor here that can impact on our ability to control our own message and online image. Technical advances are coming to strip away anonymity too.
• There was a recent news story (e.g. Stelter, B. June 21, 2011 Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone. New York Times, page A-1) that took its immediate impetus from some photos taken of a couple kissing – in the midst of a riot and surrounded by police and mayhem in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. The photo was not in any way tagged with the names of the man or woman involved, and the photographer did not know them or who they were. But the photos were posted online and within a day they were both publically identified. This story may have begun with this incident as a starting point but it went on to chronicle a series of unmaskings – of bloggers and others who have posted under false identities or who have simply assumed anonymity. And the basic message was built from this – anonymity is one thing we cannot assume online.

Crowd sourcing a search is a very powerful way to unearth identities. There, pieces of the puzzle of who posted what, and who was in what photo, or referred to in what text are publically shared and assembled and the results are made public as they emerge. This certainly applies where a particular image or text rises in visibility to catch the attention of someone who would present this to the crowd for outing, and particularly where they can present it so as to catch a measure of public interest. With that, anonymity per se would depend on the content in question staying below the radar and never catching anyone’s interest or attention. But there are much more powerful tools and approaches out there for unmasking the Who from online content, and with this, I focus on the less easily tagged and searched – image and sound track files and on automating this process where a crowd is no longer needed.

One of the underlying pillars supporting ubiquitous computing and communications is Web 3.0 technology – the increasingly sophisticated technology of tagging and rendering searchable an increasingly comprehensive range of data and file types – making more and more information immediately searchable and findable through automated processes. Text is easy to tag, filter and search as the words included are in effect tags in and of themselves. Photographic content, to pick a common supplement or even alternative to text is much less easy to tag, filter and search, at least by automated processes. But to pick up on that kissing couple, facial recognition software is improving in both speed and accuracy at a very, very rapid pace. It does not matter, the why of this or that much of it comes from efforts to address security concerns in rapidly, accurately identifying “persons of interest.” What does matter is that more and more sophisticated facial image tagging, filtering, sorting and searching capability that is fully automated is coming online and it is becoming publically available. (For Web 3.0 references, see semantic web and the section on 3.0 in Web 2.0.)

If a photo of you is out there online, and certainly if it is on a currently live web page, in a current YouTube or other video, in a blog posting or … the list of options keeps increasing, this software can with increasing likelihood identify you, and certainly if anyone sees it and finds that image of interest.

This capability calls for three basic resources:

• The facial recognition software itself, which is among other things increasingly able to identify from profile and partial images,
• A database of identified images for comparison to, with more and more online images already tagged and identified to work from.
• An image to identify,

and I will add an increasing lower threshold of impetus to search any one image to identify who is in it.

• We are not there yet, but it is only a matter of time before a resume screener will look up any job applicant online, both to capture their social media profiles as posted by them and to capture copies of their self-identified photos. And they will them plug those photos into a search engine and look for more images of that candidate as part of their basic due diligence.

Ultimately, we cannot with complete certainty or with complete control manage our online presence to fit our own preferred message. None of us will be able to do that, and even now any claims by any business that purports to be able to “clean up your online image” have to be taken with a large grain of salt. They can help you fix up your current image as you post it, and they can help you identify where others cite or reference or include you in their postings – text or otherwise. But they cannot manage or control, or fix everything. The underlying technologies behind the ubiquitous computing and communications that allow us to connect in from anywhere to anywhere, and at any time, and with ever-increasing richness of connection insures that.

• So we can and should manage our online image and message where we can, but with an understanding that any such control will never be in any sense absolute. And anonymity for anything outside of our intentional message of ourselves is always going to be an unreachable goal.

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