Your Online Persona: Public or Private?

“I’ll be there in 34 minutes” he posted with a picture of a house across the street from me.

His post was in reaction to a foolishly geo-tagged photo of my new kitten swinging from my ceiling raptors that I posted late last night. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that I had left my personal information very publicly exposed. I had already spotted my error and was hastily on the path to correcting this heinous oversight, but it made me wonder – how hard would it be to figure this out without my geo-tag? How difficult would it really be for someone to construct this information?

Within a few short minutes I posted my reply: a picture of his house; captioned “I’ll be there for breakfast.” I’d discovered where he’d attended high school, his current address and some of his employment history courtesy of a Google search and a not-so-close look at the various social networking profiles that populated my screen. Armed with a basic idea of his location I even found a history of official court records through the county clerk’s website.

I’ve waivered back and forth about how much information I’m willing to share with the virtual strangers I meet in the electronic spaces of the interwebz. I’ve long since been aware how easily people can find my address within a very few short searches. “Where do you live/Where are you from?” have become very loaded questions.

Conversely, I find that this same series of questions are eagerly and universally answered when meeting local strangers face to face. At a grocery store, school event or even local bar we divulge neighborhood specific details in a fervent attempt to connect and find common ground with the people that surround us. Suspicions cast aside; we share rather intimate details about our home, work and family. With my guard down, I tend reveal that I have kids, their ages and names, what part of town we live in and even the name and location of where I work. This type of information is standard cocktail party small talk.

Is it any more dangerous to reveal these tidbits about ourselves online? Are the local strangers any safer, less creepy or somehow more vetted? I ask myself; would I be willing to answer these same questions if the asker was, say waiting next to me at a doctor’s office?

As I’m an inherently outgoing person, the answer is inevitably yes. Children are especially connecting; when running errands strangers such as store cashiers will inquire about their ages and even which schools they attend. Typically this is nothing more than genuine curiosity and the reaching out and connection of one person to another. Why then, why is this less creepy than when the same questions are asked by someone online?

Statistically, that same cashier poses a greater risk of threat to my family. These local unknowns are privy to more about our daily habits and are physically close enough to actually track us down. In the name of polite small talk we divulge information that would otherwise be closely guarded online.

What are your thoughts? Do you hold all details tightly to your breast, both in person and online? What is your expectation of an online public life versus an online private life? How anonymous do you feel your online accounts are? How secure do you feel about the published information about you that is already circling the internet?

Personally, I feel there are only two modes: completely public and off-grid. In the United States, public information laws require that property ownership, marriages, divorces, name changes and other revealing facts be available publicly. A savvy or dedicated stalker, uhm person, could easily track down some incredibly personal facts about you.

For fear that even my most anonymous accounts will somehow be traced and revealed as mine (for example, a series of inadvertent comments aggregated over time through a comment history) I make it a point to self sensor. No work rants, nothing that would embarrass me if Mom, my boss or my kids saw it at some point.

The other alternative, being completely off-grid requires a concerted amount of effort to maintain. For successful achievement there can be no participation in social sites such as Google +, Facebook or anything else that requires the use of your name. You’d have to avoid long-term anonymous accounts as well and avoid ever referencing location, age, gender, family status or career. But without these details, these small facts that make us, us how do we develop any sort of online connection or even validity? Development of an online identity still requires us to still be people, the sum of our experiences are what help us have authority when commenting.

What are your thoughts for online identity? Are you public? Private? Some sort of combination? Why? Do you even care?

    • MissB
    • September 23rd, 2011

    After reading your post, I have come to realize just how many things about myself I have changed in the last three years. In the past, I would divulge information to whomever showed an interest in my background, I had no fear about crazy stalkers (probably because of the business I worked in). Now, however, I have a need to keep so many aspects of my life private for fear that my students or their parents will recognize me and not want me to be their teacher.

    Many do not think of the significant life changes one has to go through to be a “public” figure, mostly the way that portray yourself on online social sites. My first year teaching I had a myspace and facebook account. While I was teaching in a private school then, I had curious students who knew how to breakthrough walls and crack codes (and did so just to see what I did in my spare time). So as time went on, I deleted the myspace account and severely limited the information and privacy settings on my facebook one.

    As a rule, I do not let my students partake in my personal life, until they are no longer my students, but I still have to portray that figure on a pedestal. To them I am not the girl who loves to go out to the dance club with her friends, I am the one who goes out for dinner and then goes home to watch movies with my boyfriend.

    Because of this, it is harder for me to join sites that I don’t know much about (Google + for example). I have to be wary of who can access my information and how easily it can be spread around. Funny thing is, I do this in face to face conversations now too. I do not tell people what school I teach at, definitely do not tell them last names, and am even careful to divulge the specific area of town where I live. The last thing I need is for people to come knocking on my door asking for homework help on a weekend.

    • Thomas Fountain
    • October 1st, 2011

    There seems to be two pitfalls to putting your persona online. The one that causes the most concern is safety. As a man, I feel less vulnerable but as a father I tenaciously protect my kids. No hometown on their profile. No checking in. No telegraphing where you will be and when.
    You make a good point about sharing personal info with strangers we meet in person. But there is a sense that that information is fleeting. The cashier has probably forgotten everything you said by the time he scans the next customers bacon bits. But online is forever. That information sits there and there is a chance that, eventually, some slimeball’s cursor wiil pass over it.
    The second pitfall however is the one that bites people the most. Something getting out that you wish you could get back. Those bachelor party pictures. That rant about your boss. That off-color joke you retweeted. As much as we think we can, we can’t choose our audience online. Everything I post online, I first look at through my children’s eyes. If I wouldn’t want them to see it, I don’t post it. When we post, we are marketing ourselves.
    This leads us back to safety. How we market ourselves can help keep us safe or invite disaster. Represent yourself as strong-minded, confident and no-nonsense and the slimeball’s cursor will likely pass you up in search of the gullible and morally abiguous. I realize this comes uncomfortably close the equivalent of “that girl got raped because of the way she dresses”. That’s not what I mean. When your in a bad neighborhood, you walk with your head up and with confidence and purpose. And sometimes the internet is a bad neighborhood.

    • Anna Rowe
    • November 3rd, 2011

    You are so very right about being careful not to share to much with strangers.

    I’ve had that local guy figure out where I worked and try to follow me home. I luckily noticed and led him to the police station instead. Yet I was also able to use information that I found on-line to inform the police of a child predator, who was once again trolling internet sites for women with children. It comes down to being aware of your surrounding in your physical and on-line world, and at the same time not getting so jaded that you forget that most people are basically good.

    • David P.
    • November 8th, 2011

    Interesting and insightful post! I love your response to the initial message you got, although (in your case), I might have said something like “My brother will be over to see you later this evening” when you attached the photo of his own house… :o)

    For my part, I think there is a middle ground. I started blogging and conseqently fell into a kind of primitive social networking back in about 2004 – a group of about 30-40 people moved from commenting on posts by the columnist Dave Barry, to using the comments area for his posts to talk to each other. It was very neat – the group shared the same sense of off the wall humour that is Dave Barry, and while most were scattered all over the the US, in my case I lived in Australia, and a few in Europe. It was crazy and fast paced – because it was a single string of comments, you had to have a very sharp wit and be a fast typist to get a comment in before the conversation moved on.

    Over time we got to know each other quite well, despite us all using pseudonyms and obscuring much of our personal information. Bits and pieces of information just leaked out over time, but it didn’t seem to matter too much.

    Some of those people are my friends to this day, and I’ve even met a few of them on various trips to the US – and they are every bit as wonderful in person as they are online. I think that is a differentiator – my ex used to be critical of the time I spent chatting with these people because they weren’t “real” like someone who lived down the road apparently was. But they *were* real – real people with real lives and problems and issues and loves and hates. Some have drifted out of touch over the years for various reasons, but I still maintain friendships with a dozen or so to this day, and I value those relationships as much (and in some cases more) than the people I can actually shake hands with.

    But it took a lot of time to build up those relationships, and constant interaction, and I eventually had to concede that I needed to spend less time online and more time in my “real life”, so I too drifted away for a time.

    Then FaceBook came along and I fell in love all over again. I rediscovered all the old friends, but was immediately challenged by the fact that I suddenly had to switch from knowing them as their pseudonym to knowing their real name. And for the first time I was able to know much more about them, their kids, their relationships and interactions with their other friends, and so on. And with FB we could kind of live more separate lives in different houses rather than be crammed into the single “room” of the original comments system. I now found myself skipping from person to person commenting here and there, and on occasion three or four would all end up in one place at the same time. I broadened my group of friends up to about 100 or so as I because friends with some of *their* friends.

    But in the end the experience is different. It somehow doesn’t seem to be quite as connected – more open perhaps, but less connected, which I find a little sad. I’ve ended up with a smaller set of people that I routinely interact with that I used to have, despite having double the number of people in play.

    But to get to address your original question, I think you can find a middle ground with privacy online. I have a few rules I apply:

    1) I have a separate FB profile for close family which is very locked down and closed – it’s just for us. My other, more public, profile is much more stripped back by way of personal information, and I post to “friends of friends” hoping to attract interactions from people outside my immediate set of friends.

    2) I’m very careful to never refer to my kids by name. They are “#1 son”, or “#2 son”. I never mention what school the kids go to, or until very recently posted any photos of them.

    3) I never mention where I live exactly (just the city), or where I work. I don’t post too many specifics about what I’m doing or when – it’s not a hard and fast rule, but I tend towards vagueness.

    4) I don’t post controversies – I have political views of course, but I don’t post about them by and large, and I tend not to take sides in political or any other debates. That means a lot of what I post might seem somewhat fluffy and LOLCATish, but I can also break forth in odd thoughtful moments like this.

    5) I don’t get into fights with trolls, I ignore them – as I advised my boys when they first started venturing forth on the internet “If you don’t feed the trolls they eventually they get bored and wander off”. Nor do I rant. About other people’s spelling or ways of communicating or anything that is anybody’s fault but my own. Ok, I rant about gas prices from time to time, but I also don’t know any petroeum magnates so I’m on pretty safe ground as one of a faceless mob that hate them unilaterally. That’s not to say I don’t laugh about such things. I look for humour in things and post about that instead of getting worked up over them – that is laregly my nature anyway.

    6) I don’t post openly about my personal life. That’s why it’s called my personal life. Most importantly I never quote my actual birthdate anywhere – or if I’m forced to for some reason, I use a different one. Your birthday is a critical factor in identify theft.

    I could go on I suppose, a lot of what I do is subconscious actually, but it’s all aimed at two things – stay neutral and don’t attract the attention of, or provide cause to, people that might want to hunt me down; and I reduce the “attack surface” (as they say in IT security) to make it harder for someone to draw conclusions about me, like my home address if they are trying to find out. I don’t suppose it would ever stop a determined person finding out where I live, but not being online isn’t going to change that.

    So, in the end, I think if you’re going to be on line at all you need to present *some* form of personality rather than hide under a bushel and hope nobody notices you. But the nicer you are as a person, the fewer trolls you’ll attract.

    • grimgriz
    • May 23rd, 2012

    What I find truly unique about our online personas is the history. When meeting people in person, you share your commonalities and can judge what aspects of yourself you don’t want to share with that particular person – either because of the depth of the relationship or simply because you don’t think they would be interested in your fascination with dung beetles (though you probably have separate dung beetle friends).

    What’s been lost as far as online personas is that control – your control over who knows what about you, your discretion of what to share with whom and explore different sides of yourself. That’s what I feel is shifting with forced non-anonymity.

    You have to be always “on”. I might feel down in the dumps depressed, and though I am technically connected to thousands of people on Google+ – I can’t really share that part of me online anymore. Now it doesn’t necessarily fade away, and could potentially damage my future endeavors in both the physical and digital worlds.

    Connected to more, but less connected than ever before.

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