- Never give out your real name online
- Never post your current location
- Never talk to strangers online
- Never accept a friend/follow request from a stranger
- Never meet a stranger from online in person
These are the rules I was taught as an elementary school student in an iSafe presentation put on by the librarians. The rules were presented in such a way that implied they were a life or death matter, just as important as “stop, drop and roll” and “don’t talk to strangers.” So, as a ten year old, I agreed to the rules set out for me, and I did so earnestly.
But by eleven, the illusion of the threat of the big bad internet began to dissipate, all thanks to everyone’s favorite little yellow man.
Though I am now very thankful for not having a screenname so ridiculous my high school friends could use it as a nickname (I have referred to my two best friends as swimfast147 and littlemisschatterb0x since freshman year), my AIM screenname is a pretty good indicator that I did not take those iSafe presentations and the subsequent lectures from my parents as seriously as I thought I had. One of the most emphasized points my librarian had made was that if you are going to give out personal information online, do not give out more than two identifying characteristics in one place. Because I thought I would only use AIM with close friends, however, I deemed that rule irrelevant, and made my username danielleb429: first name, last initial, birthday.
Day one and I already broke the first rule. Soon enough, I began breaking others–I joined chatrooms with strangers, left away messages indicating where I would be, and added friends I only barely knew. On AIM alone, I broke rules 1 through 4. Still, I felt like I was being careful, and I was just doing what everybody else was doing.
Following the flow of traffic:
Culture always overrides rules. While we may be able to rationalize why a certain action may be unsafe, there is something about seeing everyone else do it anyway that subconsciously forces that rationalization to dissolve. We don’t follow the speed limit, but rather the flow of traffic. We use “everyone else is doing it” as an excuse for something we know is wrong, and we expect that the consequences will catch up to someone, just not us. The same idea is true of how our generation acts on social media. Over time, we got used to breaking some rules, and we pushed the limit of what is and isn’t acceptable online.
Eight years ago when I was creating my AIM account, I was at least a little bit conflicted about providing AOL with my name, birthday, and gender. I was severely reprimanded by my parents for including personal information in my screenname, which could be seen by almost anyone. Since then, I’ve signed up for dozens of social media sites and filled out hundreds of surveys that ask for all of that information without any hesitation. Yet, I do not think my elementary school librarian would be that appalled, because I am sure she has done the same, and because it has become “normal.” Though, normal does not mean less dangerous, it only means we care less about the potential consequences.
Selling our soul for wasabi peas…but also community:
Not only is it normal for social media sign up pages to ask for your full name, birthday, gender, and email address, but most people do not think twice about entering their home address, credit card number and bank account information online. I mean, I have even given out my social security and passport numbers online. There is not a single piece of personal information about me that you couldn’t find online if you tried hard enough.
And for what? What am I receiving in return?
If someone were to offer me, in person, 2 bags of wasabi peas and a box of clif bars in return for my name, email, home and school address, and information for three different personal credit cards, I’d say they were crazy, and I would probably feel pretty threatened. Yet, if you look at my Amazon recent purchase history, I did exactly that just a few days ago. I was willing to give up my personal information in exchange for convenience and for the forty minutes I saved in not having to go to the supermarket, but not because I value forty minutes or wasabi peas the same way I value my personal information. When I’m giving information online, it feels less threatening, despite the fact that I know it is much more likely for my information to be stolen from online cloud storage than from a random individual.
I trust an online source because that is the norm in the reality I have grown up in, but somewhere along the line, someone decided that the resources created by the internet warranted the risk of giving up personal information, and even personal safety.
And to me, those resources were access to community. Humans are oriented towards community, so when we were given the opportunity to create community online with people that we could not otherwise exchange information or experiences with, we deemed that worthy of a risk.
Whether it be the ability to create a Facebook group with other incoming freshmen to answer each other’s questions about what to bring to college, or to organize millions of people around the world in a march for women’s rights, or to bring together experts and laymen to learn a new photo editing skill, there is a distinct and tangible power in the connections formed online.
Online communities are often simply based on entertainment, too, but that does not mean they are not valuable. In high school, I was very invested in the Youtube community. I followed dozens of content creators on all forms of social media, watched their videos religiously, and made friends with people who did the same. I even attended two Youtube conventions in New York to watch performances, interact with creators, meet other fans. I mean, I literally paid to meet strangers from the internet…twice. (consider rule number 5 officially broken). Despite how objectively dangerous and even crazy that may sound, it is very common and very defendable (yes, I realize I’m biased here, but just go with it).
These communities meant something to me–in videos and on twitter and in comment sections we talked about everything from Beyonce to Benghazi. I learned things from content creators and from my peers that I could not have learned elsewhere, and I created a set of jokes and obscure references with people who I had no real prospect of ever meeting, but who shared my interests and my values.
That is pretty remarkable, and definitely more valuable than wasabi peas. So I’d like to apologize to my mother and to my librarian for breaking their rules, but, hey, everyone else is doing it.