The world may or may not be watching

Various news reports claim that Myspace is being increasingly monitored by police and employers. Police are now able to find evidence of wrongdoing simply by entering their jurisdiction's zipcode and surfing profiles, and employers are consulting the site to check out the after-hours predilections of current and potential employers. This Orewellian gambit is ironic considering that potentially incriminating information is willingly posted by Myspace users.

This scenario can only be painted in shades of grey. Police can hardly be faulted for busting people who willfully post evidence of crimes; law enforcement have committed full-time resources to tracking down potential pedophiles through chat rooms, so trolling MySpace for evidence of grafitti and drug use can be seen as an extension of the same method of police work, though the crimes may not be comparable. Background checks, even credit checks, are now regular features of being considered for a new job.

Using willingly offered information on MySpace as evidence of crime seems par for the course, even though the seriousness of the crimes can be debated. What is more discomforting, and more difficult to prevent, is the potential for people will pass negative judgement about you, especially people who may become directly responsible for your financial well-being.

There seems to be no easy answer to this issue. It would seem obvious that if one were to post a picture of themselves toking on a forearm-sized blunt, one might resonably expect that such a picture would produce a less favorable impression on the law firm one is attempting to join than it would one's forearm-sized blunt-toking buddies. It's not as easy to determine whether gathering such information in a pre-employment screening is ethical, or even if doing so provides a good barometer to that person's employability.

Even more disconcerting is the potential for simple speech to cast a negative impression on employers. The world of blogging and personal promotion seem built on the foundation of free expression, but the straight world remains less than impressed. If you make a nuissance of yourself by endlessly promoting your personal misconception of the universe while you're in the workplace, you can expect to find yourself less than welcome there, but take it home, and you can fly your freak flag in peace. But when you fly it on MySpace, you're increasingly doing so in the public square, and less so in the darkened den of your own personal hidey-hole.

As a librarian, I value the freedom of expression highly. We have a saying: "information wants to be free." If information wasn't free, libraries would have none to collect or distribute. The internet has flown wildly out of our keep, try as we might to tame it. What appeals to me most about internet self-promotion is the democracy it seems to embody; online, you can represent yourself as the person you see yourself and wish to be. Seeing such information getting turned back on its consentual distributors seems a troubling subversion of one's basic right to speak and think freely.

Again, there is no easy answer. One could easily withdraw completely; remove themselves from the grid and avoid Big Brother's pernicious gaze. However, the maverick side of me wishes more people would go the other direction. If you go, go all-in. Publish yourself completely. Put as much of yourself out there that you can bear to produce. That way, no one may need to feel ashamed of who they really think they are. Nobody's perfect, after all.

Until such a utopian, or perhaps distopian, scenario comes to pass, it seems the best advice is some that I got from my mother when I thought that Kool Aid was a food group and all pants were manufactured with built-in booties:

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

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