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Social media writes your biography in real time

As Twitter and Facebook have come to the front row of the Web in the last few years, a few have hinted that, by posting frequent status updates, in practice people were writing their autobiographies in real time. That’s dandy and catchy, but an often neglected aspect of it is that this online biography is not only being written by the main agent, but by many others sharing the social media space with the author. Doing it online also means no edits, as the backspace key might not be as effective as it used to be with the good old word processor. In that light, when posting status and photo updates, be ready to have those re-interpreted by others based on future events. Furthermore, be aware: the misinterpretation can happen with quotes that are not even yours.

Research on Iran. by Negar Mottahedeh Social M...

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A few years ago, Bernie Michalik from IBM and I were chatting about the “original” architecture profession and the IT-related one, when he brought up a nice metaphor comparing the design of actual houses with the IT architecture for security and privacy. We typically project houses with front and backyards, verandas, doors, windows, and curtains so that we can set distinct levels of security and privacy for different parts of the property or or for different times of the day and the year—overnight, weekends, when away on vacation, etc.

That conversation led me to see Philip Johnson’s Glass and Brick Houses in Connecticut from a different perspective. Johnson actually lived in his Mies van der Rohe-inspired Glass House, depicted here:

GlassHouse_Outside_Medium_Flickr_KathiaShieh_CC.jpgGlass House, Philip Johnson, exterior – by Kathia Shieh, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

While some may feel comfortable with how open the living room was designed, I would suspect that very few would have a sound sleeping night at the totally transparent bedroom:


Glass House, Philip Johnson, living room and bedroom – by Kathia Shieh, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

On the other side of the privacy spectrum, and in the same property, you’ll find the Brick House, with barely any windows to the external world:


Brick House, Philip Johnson, by Staib, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thinking further about this metaphor, and about Clay Shirky’s quote in the opening image (“Social Media: it’s like the phone turned into a radio”), I see both comparisons as useful and bright but still incomplete. The missing piece is the traceable tracking record aspect of the Internet. In a world of, Google-cached pages, RSS readers, Twitpics, and retweets, you write once, and it’s cached everywhere. So yes, online privacy is like a house, but with surveillance cameras owned by third parties, and social media is like a radio, but with a full podcast archive available to everybody. And often, you are not in the driver’s seat to determine when to close and when to open the curtains.

It’s useful, thus, to compare blogging or microblogging frequency with the fossil record from Biology books:


Some of us are like Twitter machines, logging dozens of times a day our actions, thoughts, and events, while others do that very rarely. Most users of social media are probably in between the two extremes.

If you never use social media and think that makes you safe, think again: others might be digitizing your actions in your behalf. It happens all the time in Facebook and Twitter: people will post pictures with you, and will talk about having the coffee or dinner you had together. And it definitely happens in the corporate world too. The HBR article “What’s Your Personal Social Media Strategy” tells the real world story of the CEO of a global technology firm, with no active social media presence, having his semi-private comments entering the public realm via a student attending a presentation of his.

From the CEO of Best Buy having his Twitter account hacked (his disowned tweet is still available if you know where to find it) to all the discussions around whether or not Sarah Palin erased her controversial tweet stating “don’t retreat, instead RELOAD!” to Obama quoting The Untouchables, our social media record is there to stay – even when it’s not ours.  [Editor’s note: This post was written prior to the tragic shooting in Arizona in recent days, which has again brought Palin’s comment into prominence.]

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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