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?

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