Anyone who doesn't know who Vanessa Hudgens is, does not have a tween in their lives or is not tuned into pop culture. She's the female star of Disney's hugely popular High School Musical franchise, and last week, she apologized for the nude photographs that "appeared" on the internet. Allegedly, they were meant for her boyfriend and co-star Zac Efron's eyes only. Cynics in Hollywood believe they were leaked on purpose as a way to communicate to the industry that she's ready for more "mature" roles and doesn't want to remain a tween queen forever. Still, I guarantee you that teens all over the world have heard about the scandal and have probably seen the photos, which is why I think it's a teachable moment.
It means that when you take a sexually explicit photograph of yourself or someone else in one context, that it can resurface later in another. Just because you think it's private, and your boyfriend or girlfriend assures you it's just for the two of you, situations change. You could have a bad break up and the photos get posted as revenge. Your boyfriend's annoying friend could discover it while surfing on his computer and post it for the whole school (and world) to see. The internet has fundamentally redefined our sense of what can stay private. If it's digital (or can be digitized), you cannot guarantee it will stay private. This includes photographs, audio recordings and video, all of which can be taken or recorded without you even knowing it.
danah boyd, a PhD candidate at the School of Information (iSchool) at the University of California - Berkeley and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, posted some helpful tips for teens and adults about managing their online identities and maintaining a certain degree of privacy (or just making the more private parts of your online identity harder to find). She suggests:
Create a public Internet identity. I strongly recommend blogging, but even a homepage will do. Have a genuine all-accessible identity online that you're cool with grandma and your boss reading. Don't make it uber drab, but do provide context for who you are, what you do, what you're passionate about, etc. Think of it as a digital body and dress it up as if it were going into a job interview. Blogging is especially good because you can keep updating your identity over time in a way that shows that you think. It's much easier to get a sense of someone through their commentary on public affairs or life around them than through a static page.
Say NO! to Facebook's public search option. Click "privacy" - "search." Under "Who can find my public search listing outside of Facebook?" uncheck both boxes. Be proactive about this. You might not think you care now, but having your Facebook profile at the top of a search for your name might not be what you want when you're looking for a job.
Expect unexpected audiences. Your profile on Facebook and MySpace might be "private" but when you join the Los Angeles Network or when you accept someone who knows someone, you might find that the audience viewing your profile is not who you expected. Are you prepared for this? Make sure that profile says what you want it to say, even to those you don't expect. If you want to be a porn diva and make it in Hollywood, put up that slutty photo, but if you want to be a lawyer, you might regret that photo a few years from now. Of course, I'm sure there are porn stars who later became lawyers, just like there are actors who became governors.
Write blog comments as though you're writing your own blog. The more popular a blog, the more likely the comments from that blog are to show up high on Google's lists. If you write inflammatory [comments] on those blogs just to piss people off, it will come back to haunt you. (It depresses me that a huge chunk of the comments on BoingBoing's new comment system are extremely negative.) Personally, I don't think that you should be anonymous on a blog. I think that you should stand by your name, but write articulately. And blog on your own blog so that the comments are not at the top.
Treat video and audio just like text. Right now, video and audio aren't searchable, but they will be. Don't think that you can say or do anything you want on a video and it will never come up. That Neo-Nazi video you made and put up on YouTube cuz you thought it was funny will eventually be searchable and associated with your name. Are you really ready for that to appear at the top of a Google ego search?