Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Happens in College Should Stay in College

Kermit as a blonde. Source: MuppetWiki
The latest scandal to break from Camp Weiner is that he once wore women's clothes. Yep. While he was in college. Are you shocked? I didn't think so—I'll tell you something: neither am I.

It's not that I think it's in line with his character, or that nothing concerning his sexual tendencies or preferences in general could surprise me. Rather, it's that I think what happens in college should stay in college. In the American system, the four years of undergraduate education is the first time individuals step out as adults. It is the tail end of an extended period of adolescence. It's a period when these new young adults are figuring out who they are, how to deal with the new-found ability to make their own decisions and do what they want, and working out the boundaries of their personality. Bottom line: people do some crazy things during those four years, and that's largely okay.

It used to be that social transgressions remained in the academy—shared among those who transgressed with you. And that was okay: It gave you something to talk about at your 10-year reunion. The other times of the year, you could pretend it hadn't happened. Once we went digital, however, that all changed. There is no pretending. And as companies become more adroit at searching for and finding incriminating information, what you do in college—during that period of experimentation—can come back to bite you. Hard.

Halloween gone wrong or right?
There is a bit of a double standard at work here. We want people to be free to express themselves and find themselves, but we penalize them for those efforts if they deviate from what we view as the norm. What frat boy hasn't donned a dress during pledge week? In the ancient world, long before women were allowed to take the stage, men would play their parts—in costume. Today, men sometimes choose female attire for Halloween. Should these people all be vilified for their choices?

But we can't completely blame society either. It is time we took responsibility for our online data—whatever that may be (e.g., photos, notes, personal information). Weiner's cross dressing photos were posted by a friend. There is nothing wrong with sharing if you choose to share. But you have to be aware of the impact of what you share. Sure, your buddy's 30th birthday was a blast. If people got drunk and took silly pictures, that's fine. You can treasure those memories. They don't need to be posted on Facebook or whatever social networking platform you're using—particularly if you don't understand the privacy settings. We need to start considering the reputation of others in addition to our own.

Digital data management is a community effort. Online networks are admittedly different from real world networks: they're bigger, faster, and they have momentum. The equivalent of hanging a photo in your locker may be a profile picture on Facebook. In the real world, only a handful of people might know about the photo in your locker, but online, the friends of friends of friends could have access to that information. You don't have any real assurance that they don't. What this means however is that our influence is multiplied. Photos of you with friends reinforces connections, but they're also revealing and they tell stories on your behalf. Think of the ways you are represented online, and realize that this representation is partly based on what others have shared about you. Your digital footprint is tied to the footprints of others. We help generate the digital reputation of others.

By all means, share. We live in an increasingly social society and we're watching notions of privacy and social decorum change. But we're not there yet. And we still have tendency to paint scarlet As on things that are supposed to shock us. We do this partly to confirm our place in the world of adulthood, and partly to ensure that no one looks too closely at our own past. College should be a time to experiment, and you should leave with awesome memories of experiences that help shape you into the adult you will be. But think about the data you share. Because while what happens in college should stay in college, it doesn't. And the ripples from your shares can travel great distances.

I'll leave you with this video that does a fine job of demonstrating exploring multiple identities:

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