Too Much Information?

By Erin Peterson

Elementary school’s show-and-tell has met its match in social media. Through blogs and sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, we’re sharing more of our lives with others—but at what cost?

Too much information?Dan Vollman ’12 (Oak Park, Ill.) believes he may be the only student at Carleton without a Facebook page, and his thinly disguised disdain for the red-hot social media site makes it clear he won’t be clamoring to sign up anytime soon. “I think it’s weird for people to be looking through my stuff,” he says, as though joining the site is akin to handing over a key to his dorm room. “I see my friends spending so much time scrolling through pictures, and I imagine other people doing that, coming across my profile, and looking at me.”

His girlfriend persuaded him—briefly—to join the site so that their relationship could be “Facebook official.” His presence on the site didn’t last long. Vollman was distressed by the relative lack of privacy and logged off for good shortly thereafter.

Today, he seems befuddled by Carleton’s—and the country’s—collective fascination with Facebook and other sites. He recalls the day that a tennis team friend broke up with his girlfriend—and the team was abuzz with the news before practice. “Everyone knew [about the breakup] because of Facebook, not because he had told them,” he says. “It’s really revealing, more than you’d even think.”

Vollman may be an anomaly among his peers, but his concerns mirror the wider anxiety that many people are feeling about social media sites. There’s no doubt that they’re popular—there are more than 200 million active users on Facebook, 42 million on the networking site LinkedIn, and 6 million on Twitter. And the sites are increasingly expanding beyond the college-kid sweet spot. More than half of Twitter users are 35 and older, and the fastest-growing demographic for Facebook is also users 35 and older.

Through these and other sites, the number of people sharing the most mundane and intimate details of their lives has skyrocketed during the past five years. But unlike typical conversations, which are generally shared with few and forgotten quickly, the Internet has a wide audience and a long memory. Even the most avid fans of social media are grappling with what this means—and how to make sure that what they say today doesn’t come back to haunt them tomorrow.

The Virtual Village

Too much information?

"The number of people sharing the most mundane and intimate details of their lives has skyrocketed during the past five years."

Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, a groundbreaking book decrying the decline of American community, in 2000. His research suggested that we were spending huge amounts of time shuttling to and from work alone in our cars, avoiding our neighbors, and failing to join churches, sports leagues, and even book groups. His work touched a national nerve, earning him an invitation to Camp David and landing his story in the pages of People magazine.
But he expressed his concerns before the advent of social media—a brand-new way to connect people to one another. Social media allow people to reach across continents to share photos with friends and family. They offer a sense of daily connection to people who might once have merited only an annual phone call. And it’s all available for the exceptionally reasonable price of free. Perhaps, then, the American community isn’t gone. It’s just moving online.

For Carleton physics professor Arjendu Pattanayak, Facebook was a revelation. Many of his friends and family members are in India. Through Facebook, he shares news stories, photos, and his recent activities—all in the few moments he has to spare.

Pattanayak sees mostly the upside to the medium, though he acknowledges that he’s had to read the occasional cringeworthy update from students and young relatives. That said, he believes we’re simply returning to a type of life common before the 20th century, before we lived in isolation in suburbs and were disconnected by an increasingly mobile society. “It didn’t make sense, in the 20th century, that our lives would be visible to everyone,” he says. “But before that, most people lived in villages where everyone knew who you were and what you were doing. We’re learning to live in a virtual village now.”

Margaret Hollenbach ’64 knows a bit about what it’s like to share life’s intimate details with a wide audience: she’s the author of Lost and Found, a 2004 memoir about her short-lived experience in a group marriage commune. Still, she’s skeptical that today’s social media sites really represent a virtual village—or even a virtual water cooler. “I don’t know how popular social media sites are around the world, but I suspect they’re less popular in places where people are less geographically mobile,” she says. “Although village life is confining in some ways, geographic community—running into people you know in lots of different situations [and] knowing people who know each other—can be deeply satisfying. We are social animals, not virtual social animals.”

Certainly, social media can bring out a side of many people that they may later wish they had left dormant. Anyone who’s ever used a social media site with any regularity knows about the updates that come too frequently and with too much detail, the unfortunate middle-school photos that get resurrected, the ill-conceived post that seemed witty at the time.

Tyler Odean ’06, associate product manager at Google, says he’s seen every social media faux pas in the virtual book. He relates one story in which an employee e-mailed work to explain his absence, claiming a family emergency—but a quick Facebook search by his boss ferreted out the truth: he had been photographed at a party, holding a can of beer and a cardboard magic wand.

Still, says Odean, that story misses the primary point of social media. “It’s easy to sensationalize a few isolated incidents of embarrassing personal moments,” he says. “But the many small but significant connections that are created by this new medium are cumulatively more important—even though they aren’t as newsworthy.”

When Worlds Collide

Amy Csizmar Dalal, assistant professor of computer science at Carleton, is an unabashed fan of Facebook. Her Facebook friends include both of her parents, former students, Carleton colleagues, and friends from school. (For now, she maintains a policy of not friending current students, but she says that may change someday.) Though she’s fairly open about her life, she acknowledges that deciding what information is worth sharing with such a wide group is a delicate balancing act.

Csizmar Dalal adds that Facebook and other sites are filled with virtual land mines for untenured faculty members like her. “Young women academics often struggle with the concept of identity and authority—it’s a very narrow area in which you feel you can safely operate,” she says. “I didn’t want to undermine my authority in the classroom.” So far, she says, it hasn’t been a problem—and she’s become more relaxed about sharing details from her personal life in the months since she joined.

Joan Ostergren ’81, a licensed psychologist and career counselor at Hamline University, says it’s not just professors who are struggling to find the right mix of shared and private information. Recent graduates—and indeed, anyone who mixes professional and personal acquaintances on a single site—must balance personality and professionalism. Those risqué photos might be fine between friends, but when a prospective employer digs them up, it can mean the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter. A reputation, Warren Buffett famously opined, takes 20 years to build and five minutes to ruin.

“A lot of people don’t realize how accessible this information is, and they don’t think ahead to the perceptions people might have of that information,” Ostergren says. “I have conversations with people about how to start thinking of themselves as professionals.” Indeed, nearly a third of employers in a 2008 survey suggested that they use—or plan to use—social networks to screen job candidates.

For Terin Mayer ’08, who went from Carleton student to Carleton admissions counselor, the shift was jarring. He spent years sending virtual notes to pals on Facebook as a college student. But when he became an admissions counselor for the College, he started spending time with high school students while he was interviewing them—and they often wanted to add him to their friend list. “There was a tipping point,” he says. “I decided I needed to change my profile from ‘college student Terin’ to ‘professional Terin.’ I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I felt my digital identity should be consistent with my professional responsibilities as an ambassador for the College. On the other hand, there’s something charming about being transparent with your online identity. Untagging myself from photos of college parties and removing my political views from my profile felt a bit disingenuous.”

Too much information?

“There's a loudmouth in any group, and there are the quiet people who offer up something great and pithy every time they do speak up.”

A Collective Learning Curve

All new forms of communication require new forms of etiquette. The Bell Company ran newspaper ads from 1916 to 1919 to assist people who were trying to learn how to use the telephone. Don’t carry on a conversation with a cigar in your mouth, the ads advised. Don’t shout into the telephone just because someone is far away, and remember to say good-bye at the end of a conversation. Things that seem obvious now were anything but when the technology was new.

The same learning process applies to social media, though social media have been adopted far more swiftly than the telephone was. Negotiating this terrain effectively requires an internal editor—and the ability to think far into the future.

Self-censorship is critical. Many people have arrived at simple policies they use to police themselves. Some don’t post anything they wouldn’t want to see on a bulletin board next to their office; others don’t write anything they couldn’t tell their mother. The reason is simple, says Odean: “There is no undo. Information replicates so fast that it’s impossible to track down everything to erase it,” he says.

When Christopher Tassava, associate director of corporate and foundation relations at Carleton, began blogging seven years ago—long before he had kids—he didn’t think too much about what he posted and how it might come back to affect him. But these days, with two young daughters, he’s careful about what he posts about them. He’s eager to let his kids forge their own identity, without adding online baggage. “I don’t want to embarrass them with silly anecdotes,” he says. “But I do note particular milestones, like learning to ride a bike.”

Pattanayak agrees that it’s future generations that many of us need to be thinking about—not ourselves. While he believes that we will forgive some transgressions more easily than we do today because everyone’s past will be easily documented, he’s not willing to test that theory out on his children. “There is a memory question,” he says. “Will my daughter ever be able to run for public office if it’s easier to find evidence that her dad was a dork?”

And just as some of us will gravitate to more limited sharing, others will gradually open up their lives even more. Tassava says his wife, once skeptical of his blogging, has gone on to start a blog of her own.

Over time, Tassava predicts, a broad array of social media etiquette standards will emerge. “I’m friends with people on Facebook who put up things I would never in a million years post about—like their relationship with their spouse,” he says. “There’s a loudmouth in any group, and there are the quiet people who offer up something great and pithy every time they do speak up. Facebook and Twitter are just like that. In the end, it’s just another way that we share ourselves with the world.”

The New Normal

Whatever reservations people may have about social media, it seems clear that they’re not going away anytime soon. LinkedIn reports that it adds a user every second, and Twitter’s growth has spiked by more than 1,000 percent in the past year. Facebook statistics suggest that its users spend an average of 25 minutes a day on the site—equivalent to nearly four full workweeks each year.

Learning to use the sites wisely—without letting them overtake the social connections we make in the outside world—is a challenge we’re still, as a society, learning to address. But many people, including Odean, find it hard not to buy into the hype. “A hundred years ago, we were still getting our information by telegraph and newsreel,” he says. “Now anyone with a webcam can set up Google Voice and Video Chat and have a face-to-face conversation with anyone in the world. I think that when social networking has matured, future generations will be baffled by how we ever got by without it.”


Behind the Social Media Juggernaut

Worried that social media will overtake your life? Think again. Behind the big numbers touted by social media sites are some less well known statistics about society’s fickle nature when it comes to social media.

Big Stat: Experts estimate that there are more than 200 million blogs.
Reality Check:
A 2008 study suggested that 95 percent of blogs had not been updated in the previous four months.

Big Stat: Facebook claims 200 million members—and growing.
Reality Check:
According to Facebook, just 30 million members update their status daily.

Big Stat: Recent estimates suggest that there are between 5 million and 10 million unique Twitter users in a given month.
Reality Check:
Just 10 percent of Twitter users are responsible for 90 percent of the tweets; about 60 percent of Twitter users stop visiting the site within a month of signing up.

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