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Laid bare

I didn't learn all this from speaking to Dominic. I don't know any of his friends, or family. He's not a neighbour or a celebrity of any sort. Though it seems an unhealthy amount of information to know about a total stranger, I didn't have to do much digging at all -- it's all on the web, freely available to millions, and most of it was put there by Dominic himself, using an array of Internet facilities that allow users to share the kinds of personal details that until recently were regarded as well and truly private.

Although Dominic has embraced the opportunity to disclose the minutiae of his daily routine with casual abandon, the lives of many more of us are being mapped out on the web much more quickly than we might expect. Latest estimates put the size of the web at between 30bn and 100bn pages. That means you don't have to be at the vanguard of the information revolution to have made a hefty online impression.

I decided to carry out a test using an average Internet user, my dad. Within a few minutes of punching his name into a search engine, looking him up on online directories, social networking sites, housing sites, and Internet groups, I had his full name, address, business details, phone number, a picture of his house, a pretty good idea of its value, his mother's maiden name, the names of his children and wife, and discovered the fact he has a predilection for business names containing bad puns -- his favourite is a second hand shop called Junk & Disorderly.

It won't be long before even that amount of detective work will be unnecessary. Dedicated "people-searching" sites such as ZoomInfo, Wink, Pipl, are already out there, sucking up personal information on the web, and collating it into a personal profile of anyone it can get its hands on. Every nugget of seemingly random, useless personal information reveals a little more about who we really are -- and the web doesn't forget. More of us are voluntarily handing over details of our private lives to social networking sites. The latest development, Twitter, goes even further, allowing users to instantly update their "followers" on what they are doing at any given moment. We may be used to hearing about the inconsequential tittle-tattle of celebrities, but we may all have to get used to living our lives in the full glare of the public spotlight.

It's not surprising that the idea of broadcasting every aspect of our lives over the web fills many with dread. Privacy has always been something some have protected jealously. But according to those on the frontier of digital data, getting stressed out about it misses the point. While we dither over whether or not to open a Facebook account, the Internet continues to expand. The point was recently proved by Tom Ilube, chief executive of the online profile management firm Garlik. During a recent debate on the digital profile phenomenon, he hunted out a plethora of personal details of one of his fellow panellists from generally available online sources and presented them on a projector to a packed audience.

"It's one thing realising that there's information out there. It's another thing seeing it on a projector in front of a thousand people," he says. "But in reality, it's up on a projector in front of about a billion people if they can be bothered to look at it. Even if people are sceptical about whether we live in that sort of transparent world today, look three to five years ahead and it's just obvious that we will. The debate about whether it can be stopped, reined in, or whether its good or bad, is irrelevant."

Yet as time has passed, and technology and businesses have wised up to the dangers of leaving sensitive information online, some out there are realising that the dawn of the transparent age should be welcomed, rather than feared. It could end up making us all more tolerant, less uptight, and more popular. Digital curtain-twitching could be the means for creating a more relaxed, honest and unashamedly open society.

For the zealots welcoming the transparent society with open arms, the first step towards learning to love your online profile is to explode the myth that online personal information is a dangerous thing, used by governments to spy on us and by evil employers to check up on our extracurricular activities. Quite the opposite may be true. A recent British survey found that there was a wily rump of employers hunting out the online profiles of their staff -- 11 per cent of them were at it. Yet there were twice as many employees searching the names of prospective employers before deciding whether to accept a job.

Just over one in five admitted looking up work colleagues online, 11 per cent said they scoped out their children's teachers, and 16 per cent used search engines to check on neighbours. Some worryingly keen parents-to-be in the US have even been found putting potential baby names into search engines, in an attempt to find Google-unique combinations to give their newborns a head start in their online existence.

"Without being told, people are using the information out there to their advantage," says Tom Ilube. "It's not all a one-way street. If you understand the rules of this new world, it can be pretty empowering."
Not only that, but the amount of information being spewed out into the great digital yonder will mean that it won't be those with an online profile who will be viewed with suspicion. Those whose lives aren't documented for all to see may become the oddballs.

"If you were an employer in five years' time recruiting someone and looked for them online only to find nothing, you'd think, 'what an odd sort of person,'" says Ilube. "What kind of person would engineer their teenage lives in such a way as to remove their digital footprint?"

Dominic Campbell, a willing guinea pig testing out total disclosure of his life, agrees. He now spends his days helping local government to use the web to engage with their citizens. "There is a choice at the moment," he says. "But it may well be that in the long run, people will look at you suspiciously if you've kept a low online profile, and wonder why you feel you have to be that way."

The thought of our neighbours sitting at a laptop and rifling through our online photos may be a little worrying, but it may just be that it could bring the strict boundaries between work colleague, friend and brief acquaintance crashing down -- to the benefit of all of us. We can all stop pretending that the boss only ever wears that suit, or that we can only ever use office-speak when talking to Dave from human resources. Once we know our kid's teacher's favourite song and that her status has tripped over from "in a relationship" to "single," maybe we'll even start to talk to her like a human being.

"There's no longer a need for these false identities now," says Dominic Campbell. "These tools are helping us to break down those barriers and start being human beings again at work, which can only be a good thing."
And the more we put information online, the more we can be ourselves. Handing over information to social networking sites on our friends, habits and career builds up such a clear picture of our "social graph" that creating a false impression becomes almost impossible. Could the age of total transparency spell the end for the social chameleon?

"Those social graphs tell an awful lot," says Tom Ilube. "It's very hard to make your social graph lie. Therefore, you might as well be yourself."
It's not hard to think of sections of society that might prefer to keep their private lives locked away, though. Politicians spring to mind. As the former prime minister's head of strategy, Matthew Taylor was a main mover behind Tony Blair's expertly managed image. According to Taylor, the arrival of the transparent age might not be such a bad thing either. For one, if having a colourful online profile is a bar to office, it'll be all but impossible to find enough MPs to fill the cabinet room in the future. After a while, they'll just have to let it all hang out, too.
"Are we genuinely saying that in 20 years' time we're going to debar anyone from becoming a politician who has taken a drug? Presumably you're talking about a chunk of the middle-class, liberal generation," he says. "That kind of attitude is unsustainable. What celebrities realised a while ago was that there was no point trying to hide your drug addition, or childhood ordeals. You might as well make it into a virtue.

"I suspect that we will see politicians increasingly make a virtue of the realness of their pasts and the degree to which they've overcome their peccadilloes, predilections and problems. I think it will lead to a greater level of tolerance."
A boom in honesty, freedom from the boring work persona, the end of the faker and more human politicians - perhaps the brave new world full of mini-celebs won't be so scary, after all. And maybe the idea that total transparency is a new phenomena isn't quite right, either. Having many of your personal details known to the community wasn't such a foreign idea until recently. We are currently in a brief age of curious anonymity. The sea of online information will simply drag us back to the historic norm of knowing more about each other than we'd care to admit. The curtain-twitchers will only have moved from the window to the PC.

"People may look back and say that there was a peculiar time in the history of human affairs between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 21st century where it was possible to achieve very high levels of anonymity," muses Matthew Taylor. "That was never the case when people lived in rural areas and villages. Back then, your sins and those of you family were visited upon you for the rest of your life. We're now going back to that world. If you do something, you have to assume that everyone knows about it."

So we're all back in a global village, with an intricate knowledge of each other's misdeeds, triumphs and tribulations. It's another reason to relax, though. After all, if the Internet brings us back to an age in which we're aware of each other's previously private lives, we may end up empathising a little more. And according to Matthew Taylor, there's more on the plus side. By some bizarre twist in the laws of unintended consequences, our digital profiles could fuel a boom in that unfashionable thing -- real human contact.

"We should get used to this world, but possibly because, in the end, when we know absolutely everything about someone online, we will understand at exactly the same time that that doesn't tell us any of the things that we really need to know about somebody. Perversely, it could increase our understanding of the importance of actually being with people."

And to any of my relatives who have seen that Facebook picture of me in the Christmas hat during New Year 2007, I can only say sorry. It was a long night. And I returned the bike afterwards.

The Independent

Source: Gulf Today
Posted: 29/06/2008

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