"….But What I do That Defines Me" – Batman
The recent capture of notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger paints in sharp relief this brave new world of ours – with its full transparency and ultimate accountability for all of one’s deeds – good and evil.
Of particular interest was how, after 16 years on the run, the authorities were finally able to catch him.
He had evaded detection at least in part, not unlike the very infamous man who was once immediately above him on the FBI most wanted list, by eschewing the kinds of modern conveniences that most of us take for granted – cell phones, email accounts, or even driving a car. By so doing, Bulger avoided the electronic “paper trail” that is so easy to follow with just an Internet search here and there.
Whitey’s problem was that his girlfriend couldn’t quite manage to live the fully reclusive, offline life. She enjoyed normal things – like getting her teeth cleaned and her hair done – that involved public interaction. Knowing this, the FBI hit upon the bright idea of a public service ad aired during some popular daytime soap operas, and acting on a called-in tip, both Bulger and Grieg were captured and behind bars within a week.
This is a good thing for law enforcement for sure, but what about privacy? It seems that in our always-on, every syllable saved forever world of digital communication - it is truly impossible to hide. Probably even more troubling, often the very act of trying to hide is viewed as worse signaling than the secrets themselves!
I am of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I am with the privacy advocates who say that even when modern media allows for the capture of a very notorious criminal, that Orwellian Big Brother fears are unsettling to say the least.
But before his publicists got to him, I also respect Mark Zuckerberg’s general take on the matter, namely that if you are so concerned about certain things that you do or say becoming public, then maybe you shouldn’t do or say those things.
You see, there is this little thing called reputation, and it is the ultimate currency in our online world.
Now, there always will be that small but very vocal minority whose main intent in life it seems is to “flame” and the more public the success, the more virulent their attacks. If you in any way doubt this, ask any celebrity, athlete, or politician about the lies, stereotypes and just downright viciousness they are subjected to online.
Adding to this, the nature of the Internet only amplifies that most unfortunate component of human nature – namely that we remember and highlight negative acts much more intensely than positive ones. Mirroring this, on the Internet the flames and the complaints are heard (and indexed by the search engines) in excess to their statistical importance.
Even with this important caveat, there remains great power and efficacy in that bright reputational spotlight that is our online, socially networked world.
Do the right thing, consistently and over time, and the world notices and rewards you.
Whether that right thing is being a power seller on eBay with thousands of positive ratings, a product on Amazon with dozens of positive reviews, an online blogger with thousands of dedicated readers, or an entertainer with millions of Twitter followers, the wheat online does get separated from the chaff.
And as for what all this means for the bad guys, well go ask White Bulger in his new holding cell if you have any doubt.