The divide between our private life (who we really are) and the professional persona we don in the workplace is more blurry than ever before. Facebook and Twitter, once non-official, social spaces of trivia and rebellion, have become corporatized hunting grounds for PR, marketing and advertising. People have been arrested, prosecuted and fired or jailed for jokes on Facebook or for criticizing colleagues on Facebook. They have been arrested over tweets to celebrities. We are no longer safe. It is now unwise to use your Facebook account to engage in any conversation you wouldn’t want your boss to see. It is now a criminal offence to make jokes on Facebook about missing people – even though making such a joke to someone’s face in real life might not be a crime. Not only does this affect our privacy, peace of mind and freedom of expression, it also makes people more likely to use pseudonyms on social media – and by extension that pseudonymity bolsters confidence and creates more trolls and cyberbullies.
But perhaps I’m being a little too hard on social media. Perhaps what’s going on with social media is just the same thing that’s happening to everything else online and to real life.
Most readers of this blog will remember the Bill Clinton scandal. Similar scandals rock the tabloids every year; and they need not be about sex. For Danielle Lloyd a decade later, posing for Playboy was enough. And while we have made progress since 1997 or 2007 in other areas, this prudery and scandal-mongering about sex and the body is as bad – if not actually worse – than it was twenty or thirty years ago. In the last couple of months, the lives and careers that have been attacked and sometimes ruined include Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, Kristen Stewart and Michael Brutsch. And that’s off the top of my head. No doubt I’ve missed out other people whose stories did not glare out from the headlines and blogs for weeks.
You know slutshaming is a big social problem when the mainstream media is slutshaming constantly for profit and this is bolstered by society. And you know slutshaming is a problem when you don’t actually have to have sex to get shamed. Apparently, topless modelling, naturism-as-a-game, kissing and posting photos of girls you think are hot are enough now.
And I’m pretty sure most of us were doing more than being naked (with private parts covered) the night Prince Harry played strip billiards…where do you think the babies keep coming from, folks?? I know one thing – the stork isn’t bringing them.)
And it was all for nothing. The first three did nothing wrong and harmed nobody. The last did nothing illegal; he posted clothed Facebook photos of girls without their permission to a subreddit which was closed over a year ago, and moderated a similar subreddit which was closed before he was outed. All that the journalists achieved was creating controversy and hatred over things as trivial, private and innocent as posing topless, playing ‘strip billiards’ and kissing a colleague. And in the fourth case, the photos, the posters of “pornography” and the other moderators are still at large – nothing has changed except that a new porn king, Scopolamina, has been set up in Violentacrez’s place. So all of these people suffered for absolutely nothing. It was a waste of national discourse, trees, blog posts and conversations as well.
However, gone are the days when the newspapers are all you have to fear. A newspaper will eventually be binned, and the unfortunate teenage Facebook/Twitter users will be forgotten soon enough. But Google never forgets. After a while has passed, you don’t have to disclose your spent convictions to employers (unless they want an enhanced disclosure). So hopefully by the time these young people go out looking for work their convictions will be considered ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. But if their potential employers Google them, the Act may as well be so much paper. The news articles will tell employers far more than merely disclosing the crime would. And malicious bloggers and commenters will skew the story into a catalogue of crimes much worse than the reality. Google is a search engine; how can it possibly tell the truth from lies, informed commentary from ignorant reaction, the analysis from the vitriol?
I am utterly confident that mone of my employers Googled me, either before or after the interview (or they would not have made the assumptions they did or asked the questions they did). It may be paranoia to believe that employers Google applicants – or that they believe what they read online. Or that employers have discrimination on the basis of Googling your name any more than they discriminate on the basis of sex, age or ethnicity. But still, I worry about Matthew Woods and the other teens who landed in similar situations.
And perhaps more worrying than their futures and career prospectsis the emotional damage that such public hatred and notoriety has had on them. The internet – especially social media and blogging – is a great asset to democracy and social justice. Outing people is not always wrong. Sometimes a story is too small or lacks evidence for journalists to pick it up. Blogs and social media can step in – to ‘name and shame’ priveleged individuals who would otherwise get away with it, or to call out unfair government policies. Shaming people because of naturism/nudity or their sex life is also not always wrong. For example, if such shaming was used against Nadine Dorries or Rush Limbaugh it would be entirely justified – because their entire careers are built on repressing our sexuality, and if they were not repressed themselves they would be hypocrites.
There is nothing to stop private individuals emailing your boss a link to what you said on Facebook, and this has in fact happened to one man because he made a joke. He was fired. And I don’t believe we should stop private individuals from doing this. (When tabloids or other news corporations become involved, that’s a different matter. News sites and papers have their own agendas – either advertising or site hits – and will ruin lives and exaggerate stories to get them. So that is different from private individuals.)
Work was once a way of earning money, a way of sustaining your private and social life. Now, it’s the other way around – your private life and social life must fit in with your work life. What you do online musn’t look bad for your company. Your sexual history must please your prudish boss. Your Google record must be clean to continue working for this corporation.
Get offered a job, and you must tailor your life to fit it. It’s not just a job. It’s a lifestyle, an image. A job isn’t just to pay the bills anymore, it’s a two-way contract: your freedom for their wages.
Ironically it is the educated and middle-class who are the most affected by all this. McDonald’s doesn’t care if your Google trail says you’re a troll, hater or pornographer. Likewise, a degree job doesn’t care that your Google trail is so vastly exaggerated and one-sided that it’s basically a lie.
One day, your Google record will be more important than your criminal record.
If we don’t stop soon, where will it all end? People have been fired for blogging about sex or being escorts on the side. A teacher was even fired for being a call girl in her past as a student. So even your past can affect your present, no matter how long ago it was and how you’ve grown and changed since then. The line between private and professional grows fainter with each passing day. Bosses follow you on Twitter; your corporation has friended you on Facebook. LinkedIn neatly muddles the private and the professional. The faintest, most innocent whisper of nudity is so dire that hobbyist photographers, artists and models do their hobby under a fake name to beat Google at its own game. Students de-tag photos of themselves drunk out of fear of future employers seeing the pics and thinking that they’re drunk 24/7 instead of just in the picture. More and more social media profiles are going private or friends-only. Articles on how to be an anonymous blogger and how not to get doxed or hacked proliferate.
So what I’m advocating is that we use our slutshaming and outing abilities responsibly and only as a last resort to deal with cyberbullies or in the political sphere. We should refrain from ruining lives just because we personally disagree with what someone said, find their joking or trolling annoying or tasteless, etc. We should focus on harm – cyberbullying or hate speech. REAL hate speech, not trolling or joking. When I think of the number of white supremacists, anti-semites, misogynists, rape culture enablers and homophobes that nobody has managed to out yet, I’m staggered. We seem to go for the harmless young people having fun in hotel suites or kissing in cars. The best we can do is get people jailed for Facebook jokes or fired for Reddit trolling.
All this does is limit freedom of expression and force people into anonymity and pseudonymity just to feel safe – a great breeding ground for trolling. It creates a feeling of shame about activities which shouldn’t be shameful – modelling, fun, the nude human body.
It’s time to use our powers for good, not evil. To really make a difference not only to the internet, but to our society and ultimately to our own communities. To out cyberbullies and makers of hate speech while preserving our own freedom of expression.