Personhood and Sturking


Hi all,

We read some Margaret Jane Radin in Property 1 and I thought I’d share an excerpt from (and my thoughts on) an article on Radin and Hegel that I found on this HLS Cyber Law site called “The Bridge” ( The excerpt is particularly relevant to our discussion earlier this semester about identity and the web, and also to my paper, as planned thus far:

“Hegel maintained that a human being cannot live a full or proper human life, a life that matches up to the special human capacity for freely exercised agency, without coming to a full consciousness and appreciation of herself as a person sharing a society and a culture with other human beings and indeed sharing with them the making of that society and culture. In Hegel’s view, furthermore, achievement of this kind of self-appreciation is not possible except through a person’s voluntary and designed interactions with the material and social worlds — interactions that leave on those worlds the mark or imprint of her agency, her efficacy, in a way that not only is visible to her but that she knows is visible to others, as her work. But people cannot, in general, have much hope of imprinting themselves on the material and social worlds in this way (Hegel says) unless they can be made secure in their control over parcels of the material world, extended through at least a moderate length of time. Hence, the institution of private property is justified in a consequentialist manner, as conducive to the fulfillment of a basic and universal human interest.”

So I might be writing my paper about employers digging up information about their (current or prospective) employees by checking out social network site profiles, and there’s an important concept I want to write about that this excerpt might help me to articulate: one major web difference is the extension of digital natives’ (Palfrey) personhood, manifested today in the particularly personal nature of social network profiles. Although Hegel thought that one’s “control over parcels of the material world” was the only way she could come to “a full consciousness and appreciation of herself as a person sharing a society and a culture with other human beings”; we now also have social networking profiles to serve the same purposes referenced in the excerpt above. Our profiles are filled with pictures going back three or four years, all cataloged and tagged. They feature wall posts from our other members of networked communities, archived over the same years-long span. In Facebook, profile content is so central that users’ welcome pages display, as the default, an RSS news feed which alerts them all of the alterations, no matter how minor, their friends’ have recently made to their profiles.ย  These alterations are so important because they signal, to members of their social networks, potential changes in she perceives herself and how she wishes to be perceived.ย  Essentially, to a “digital native,” a social networking profile is a time-lapsed aggregation of her agency–a passworded, limited-access archive of the very “interactions with the material and social worlds” which (legitimately, despite protestations of “digital immigrants” [Palfrey]) embody a significant element of her personhood.

Because these profiles embody a boundary-blurring extension of their users’ personhood, they deserve special (legal, I’ll argue in my paper) treatment in certain cases. One such case: employers are newly enabled by means of “sturking” to blur traditional boundaries between considerations of their (again, current or prospective) employees’ professional lives and considerations of their personal lives. It is increasingly urgent that we address the disconnect between the norms of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” (again, Palfrey ๐Ÿ™‚ ) and I’m using my paper to explore this disconnect in relation to a specific, concrete issue that is likely to have social and economic impact on our country (and on my generation, gosh darnit!).

Danah Boyd explains the proliferations of “Fakester” profiles on Friendster in “None of This is Real”: “The early adoption of Friendster was riddled with playful interactions, most notably the proliferation of ‘fakesters’–invented profiles used, among other things, to help signal group and cultural identification and allow people to play within the system” (emphasis supplied). To the extent that social network profiles have become the major interface through which many people present themselves to their online communities, they have also become the major interface through which many people explore their identities by grooming, manipulating, and experimenting with these profiles. Digital Natives’ ability to explore our own identities through experimenting with these profiles is a benefit our society might value much more (and, I hope, legally protect the privacy of) if we re-conceptualize these profiles as extensions of personhood (Radin).

I welcome anyone who has the patience to wade through this to Please, Please, Please comment, because this post is the first time I’ve put down my thoughts about my paper in any kind of format besides an outline.


  1. dweinberger

    March 16, 2008 @ 2:48 pm


    Great area. And really hard, especially as (if?) you head toward policy implications because if (if!) we are here dealing with two different conceptions of the self, we may lack the common values that enable reasonable policy discussions. Or the Web may be “merely” enabling our usual sense of self to be more easily manifested in all its multiple and playful parts, while simultaneously making those parts findable by employers. Either way, we seem to be faced with a pretty serious value divide: Should employers simply not be allowed to consider what they find on the Web, just as they’re now not allowed to ask about someone’s sexual orientation or economic background? Could we make an enforceable policy along these lines, if we wanted to?

    But, you seem to be headed in the opposite direction, incorporating FB (etc.) pages as legitimate parts of one’s manifestation of personhood. (Or maybe it _is_ Web personhood and not even a manifestation.) From this should we conclude that companies ought to be allowed to judge you based on the drunken wall messages you left when you were 16? What sort of policy would work here? Law? Norms? Something else? (I know I sound like I’m skewing this to one side. The truth is that I have no idea what’s right here.)

    BTW, I _think_ (but certainly am not sure at this point) that Hegel may not help here, except perhaps to say that the Web is an Hegelian moment that both overcomes and pulls forward old forms … old forms of self and society, in this case. So, the imprints we are leaving now on FB are fully social objects, not material objects we’ve pulled into the social world (so to speak). The control over the presentation of our self is far more direct at FB than in the real world where, for example, your front yard expresses your self and its relation to your neighborhood rather indirectly. But I don’t remember Hegel well enough ๐Ÿ™

  2. cbaird

    March 16, 2008 @ 7:50 pm


    I think this is a very interesting topic, and it will probably get even more interesting as you delve into the possible course of legal action that should follow. The first thing that popped into my head as I read your post is the question, “to whom should the legislature speak when it passes laws?” Should the legislature speak to the employers and regulate what information can be considered in the job application process? Should it speak to the code writers and regulate what employers can access without authorization? Should it speak to the applicants with “post at your own risk”-type laws? Etc… I am sure there are a million different directions you could take your paper, keep us posted as you move along and I’m sure more suggestions will come as a result. Good luck.

  3. ckennedy

    March 16, 2008 @ 9:34 pm


    Thanks to the both of you for your responses, and I encourage others to join in on this conversation as well.

    To respond to Professor Weinberger’s comments:

    He’s absolutely right: our country does indeed “lack the common values that enable reasonable policy discussions.” What I might want to explore, in part, is why “digital immigrants” believe their context-specific values can be so easily latched onto the internet so as to minimize the values they can’t readily observe from the outside (i.e., identity exploration and web personhood). Many of the benefits of internet culture, benefits worth protecting, are lost on digital immigrants and digital foreigners–principally because those benefits are intangible or incomprehensible to people who haven’t been immersed in Web culture (in the case I’m discussing, those who never depended on social networks to maintenance relationships, or in the case of admitted undergraduates-to-be, to establish entirely new social niches before the first day of school). When I ran my “identity exploration” theory past my mom, for instance, I got one of those yeah-right-get-a-job-kid responses: “Oh that’s, um, nice honey.”

    So while I agree that there is a division of norms, I also think there’s an explanation for that division that slightly favors my position. It helps my case that digital immigrants are not sufficiently immersed in web culture to adequately assess the values I’m discussing. Our elderly congressmen and women’s DOPA voting statements, when read after a review of congressional hearings on the matter, demonstrated a profound lack of understanding of web culture–they didn’t even mention-and-dismiss even the slightly-technical points raised about net culture at the hearings. SO, At the very least, arguing about the web difference regarding personhood in social networking sites might persuade any digital immigrants reading my paper to explore the topic further before coming to a final conclusion about the policy I’m recommending. At the most, the more content out there which further articulates and explains the value of depth of net culture in relation to large-scale societal questions (whether of norms or policy) the more likely we are to legitimate (here, a verb, not a typo) discussions about the values I’m talking about. To a certain degree, I think the idea behind Professor Weinberger’s comments helps me to realize my goal with this paper: legitimate (again, a verb ๐Ÿ™‚ ) a policy conversation.

    Still, I will make a policy proposal. Given my goal, I’ll try to limit the scope of the policy I propose to an end most reasonable people can accept (in the abstract). As to the specifics: Lessig explains in Code 2.0 that “The regulator selects from among these various techniques according to the return from eachโ€”both in efficiency and in the values that each might express.” So, first of all, I wouldn’t want to regulate coders. (I am, after all, writing from Cambridge). As I’m not sure about the kind of social and economic impacts such large-scale alterations will have on our nation’s digital natives, I want to steer clear from that pandora’s box (and towards another, of course), especially because I have a more specific target in mind, and thus a more efficient policy solution (bracketing, that is, the political discussion about differing norms for the time being). Alright. Here goes:

    I want to argue that Congress should enable civil remedies, comparable to those rewarded in other categories of employment discrimination cases, for plaintiffs who show that Social Networking Site Sturking played a significant role in a negative employment decision against them. Further, I want to extend this remedy to eventually cover college and graduate admissions decisions as well. Of course, it won’t regulate all Sturking, but it will significantly crack down on it and empower the Myspace/Facebook generation to confidently protect their social publics (boyd). Additionally, it will hinder and stigmatize the practice of Sturking, while also thwarting any current or future systematic, professional Sturking for employment or admission decisions.

    Should that formal of a solution lack feasibility, I think another angle to take is large scale grassroots youth rights organizing modeled around the basic ideas underlying Standford Law’s Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession ( By articulating a list of reasonable expectations against Anti-Sturking and banding together to apply only to employers and/or colleges who make demonstrate good faith efforts to meet those expectations (ranging from transparency and disclosure to reviews of, and amendments to, hiring/promotion/admission policies) our nation’s youth can leverage their political power and eliminate this practice.

    But that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.

  4. dweinberger

    March 17, 2008 @ 9:13 am


    Really interesting.

    Don’t take the following as negative criticism. (Nor, of course, did I mean my first post as discouragement. I do think you’re onto a fascinating topic and headed towards an excellent paper.) But, I don’t yet understand exactly how this would work. Employers couldn’t be barred from reading public materials, right? (IANAL) Rather, a suit would have to show that it affected the company’s decision. So, if a potential employer reads my FB page and discovers I have a pretty bad drug habit, or am a racist, or have a habit of threatening people indiscriminately, they wouldn’t be allowed to let that info influence their hiring decision?

    Maybe a statute of limitations for drunken FaceBooking? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. ckennedy

    March 17, 2008 @ 11:42 am


    LOL; definitely an important point. Short Answer:No, they wouldn’t.

    First off, I want to research how exactly other discrimination statutes are enforced because I would think it would be difficult to enforce a No Consideration rule. But that’s more a personal note because I’m logging these comments to help direct me as I move through this.

    Second, I believe that everybody has things related to their personal life that they choose to leave out in an interview and that don’t come up in discussion with references or previous employers. An employer could walk to my glass home and stare at me through my window from the street with binoculars to find out I batter my wife (a hypo), but he doesn’t; and not just because it’s inconvenient to do so or physically impossible to do so on a mass scale. A college admissions committee could follow my friends and I through the mall to find out that we enjoy tackling old people (also a hypo), but they don’t; and, once again, not just because it’s inconvenient to do so or physically impossible to do so on a mass scale. Though home life or even mall life are not password protected, and are technically “public,” there are expectations we have that there won’t be systematic efforts by employers to stalk and lurk around us until they are satisfied our personal lives make us employable. Those expectations are no longer enforced by architecture.

    The MySpace Generation has a new privacy problem: their publics are online (boyd). It’s time we look at what reasonable measures we can take to re-articulate the appropriate divisions between personal life and economic life traditionally enforced by inconvenience/physical impossibility. So yes, I would say that its reasonable that your potential employer can’t consider (though it’s very difficult to penalize employers with damages for just looking, but I would ask “Why are you sturking? Would you spy on this guy in his home if you had a chance?”) negative personal information she finds in your SNS profile through sturking, but it’s only fair because her doing so would disproportionately disadvantage digital natives unless she is taking analogous measures to uncover digital foreigners’ (i.e., those without SNS profiles) racist or violent tendencies.

    By leaving sturking as is, we’re forcing digital natives to choose between their social worlds and a fruitful economic life. Privacy settings are very difficult to confidently manipulate; third parties can always post pictures, wall post, etc., on your profile; any “friend” can post something about you on their profile; so no matter what you do besides destroying your profile raises the significant risk that rumors and hear-say are all of a sudden fair game in an admissions or employment decision that determines whether you can repay your loans or you have to start working on that underground rap career.

    Moreover, I think drunken Facebooking is an important element of SNS’s that we need to preserve. People say stupid stuff–>they let their hair down because they’re opening up to a specific audience: the small slice of their generation they’ve friended. There’s an expectation that this is a semi-private articulation in any situation where one’s drunken facebooking isn’t readily available on the front page of her profile (again, I assert that inconvenience = slightly higher privacy expectation). If it’s my facebook profile picture and that’s googlable, you’ve got a point. If my information is in the depths of my wall archive or if I posted it on a friend’s wall, it is private (or at least semi-private), and the only way to uncover it is through sturking. Since there’s both public, semi-private, and private information on SNS profiles, I think we need to stop employers from looking at them entirely by finding any enforcement mechanism that tells them “you can’t consider any of this.” Still, I do realize there are levels of privacy even within the same SNS profile.

    As for the bad drug habit, employers already screen everybody for drugs, so if somebody passes the test but the employer finds pictures online, he has no idea about the context, time, genuineness of those pictures and an employee shouldn’t even have to address them if he passes the drug test.

    BTW, what’s IANAL?