/Big Mouth/ You 2.0

Google may have our search history, but who has our psyche? Gary Marshall investigates the truth behind our online identities

If I wanted to rule the world, I wouldn’t bother assembling a terrifying arsenal of nuclear weapons, or building a robot army. I’d be in the software business – and specifically, the communications software business. I’d be in email clients and web-based Twitter services; social network status updaters and word processors. While each program would be different, they’d all have one feature in common: whenever the user hit Delete or Cancel, the program would send me a copy of the document, message or @reply before zapping it.

Imagine the possibilities.

Imagine the power.

If you think Google storing everybody’s search queries is worrying, my data stash would scare you silly. The emails you decided not to send once you’d calmed down or sobered up? I’d have them. The tweets you deleted because you didn’t want to start a Twitter war? I’d have them too. I’d have everything.

I’d have the status updates you scrapped because you realised you were offering too much information. I’d have the Facebook friend request replies you wanted to send before you decided to click on Limited Profile instead. I’d have the letters you never printed for fear of re-opening old wounds; the angry, unsent emails; and the whistle-blowing blog posts whose publication would render you utterly unemployable.

Google might have your search history, but I’d have your psyche. Isn’t that terrifying?

For most of us, there’s a difference between the person we really are and the person we play on the internet. I don’t mean in a mild-mannered janitor/ Hong Kong Phooey way (or in a mild-mannered janitor/Dennis Nilsen way either). I mean that unless you’re ridiculously honest, American, or 14, then you practise a certain amount of self-censorship. What people see is still you, but it’s a toned-down, smartened up, edited highlights version of you.

Sometimes that censorship is a temporary thing, so you’re posting hilarious things online when in the real world you want to hurl yourself off a bridge, or hurl somebody else off a bridge. Sometimes it’s a self-preservation thing, where you know that telling the truth about your boss will change nothing other than your employment status. And sometimes it’s because the whole point of your online identity is that it lets you leave behind the bits you don’t like.

I think that last one is why I loathe the popular social networks so much. It’s not the constant attempts to monetise your life, or what seems to be constant chipping away at user privacy, although of course that’s annoying. It’s that slowly but surely they’re filling up with the very people I, and perhaps you, went online to get away from in the first place – so while my database is entirely imaginary, social networks are proving to be the human analogue. It’s easy to create a better, brighter You 2.0 online – but it’s hard to stop old acquaintances from turning up to scribble on your blank canvas.
Gary Marshall has been writing for .net since the stone age. www.bigmouthstrikesagain.com

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