Where is your online private/public divide?

by Francis Wooby on June 7, 2009

Social media is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, you have unprecedented ability to broadcast any content instantly, through whatever medium, or media you choose. No gatekeepers. No rules. All freedom.

On the other hand, you have unprecedented ability to broadcast any content instantly, and through whatever medium, or media you choose. No gatekeepers. No rules. All freedom.

The concept of the “digital footprint” is not a new one. For years we’ve been warned that everything we do online, stays online. The Google monster is especially good at preserving traces of our online travel and making them available to anyone who wants to do a little checking up on us; say a potential employer. Every blog post, comment, picture, audio clip or video you throw up there is a potential line on your résumé, whether you want it to be or not.

Some platforms are helping divide private from public; or at least they give you the tools to establish some separate online faces for yourself.

Facebook, for instance, is often criticised for airing your entire life. However, it’s actually one of the few places where you can enjoy a meaningfully large network of people, without having to make yourself available to everyone else online. It takes some complex manipulation of privacy settings, but it is possible to keep your photos, status updates, wall posts and everything else hidden from the Web, and even from your own Facebook friends.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. I appreciate Facebook’s “walled garden” approach to not sharing openly with the World Wide Web because I don’t need to interact with my network of personal friends so publicly. The world does not need to know everything about me, my friends or my family. Nor is it interested in the mental flotsam that goes into my status updates. This is why I recently moved my personal blog from Google’s service to Facebook Notes, and why I refuse friend requests from people I interact with on a non-personal level (e.g. clients, fellow club members, colleagues).

Now obviously I still want to have a public online presence for work and other reasons. There is tremendous value in networking online, and playing an active role in social media communities. I’m a member of LinkedIn, a sort of Facebook for professionals; I use Twitter; and, of course, I run this blog and frequently comment on others. All of this is very visible to anyone and everyone online, which something I remain very aware of. It’s not that I’m stating things I don’t believe, withholding every little personal detail, or hiding all aspects of my actual personality. Instead I’m simply conducting myself online as I would in person in any public setting.

It’s not a perfect system, and it’s always in development, but I feel it’s important to keep my professional side, for lack of a better term, separate from my personal one online.

Please comment with any thoughts, feelings, stories or questions you have about the “private” vs. “public” online issue. Who do you befriend and refuse to connect with on Facebook? How personal do you get on your blog, Twitter or other online forums you use? Do you use your real name? Is online activity harmful to your career?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan June 7, 2009 at 2:22 pm

I have always used social-networking sites for work. In the nineties, these were message boards: free-wheeling sites where anybody could write anything but we created a community out of a pretty disparate (and sometimes despondent) group. I was also a member of what I suppose was a walled message board: only certain people could join, and we were much more open about who we were and how we felt about, well, everything.

My blog is public, and I try to keep it reasonably civil. This is something of a balancing act, and I won’t claim to be doing a perfect job. It’s not really focused, but I do stick to certain topics and stay away from others. It’s entirely personal: I blog about my own thoughts and experiences, never about issues I deal with at work except in the broadest sense.

I’ve been direct with people: if they want to know what I think about something, they should call and ask instead of waiting for me to blog about it. It may never make it to the site.

Facebook’s more private: I can be more open about how I feel and what I’m really thinking. Still, I am very aware that it doesn’t offer real privacy.

Gordon June 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

What is of concern in the public/private debate is not so much what an individual puts online themselves (as if you don’t realize that a drunken picture of you exposing yourself will haunt you for the rest of your days, then you deserve the consequences) but rather pictures that others post with you in them. I’m glad I didn’t go to university in the days of camera phones because any number of dumb things I did could be plastered around the Internet with no way for me do anything about it. In Facebook you can untag yourself, but I don’t know if there is a way to get a picture of yourself removed if the poster is unwilling. The easy answer is to never get drunk and do stupid things, but that’s as unrealistic for students as expecting them to make every 8 a.m. Saturday class. The world is watching.

As far as written work goes, after so many years as a journalist I know that every word I write will be out there forever and if my name is on it then I have to be accountable for it. As such, I don’t post capricious comments online much the same as I don’t allow them in my papers. The downside is that my replies like this are a lot dryer than the would be if we were talking about this over a beer. In that case I know my audience and once my words have dissipated into the ether they can’t be used with any authority against me (unless they’ve been recorded).

Anonymous June 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

Recently, I hosted a birthday party. I was very well behaved because of work colleagues that attended my party. After all the guests had left except my best friends we had a bit more to drink.

I was unaware that my arm wrestling competition had been video recorded. I was shocked to see a video of me winning on Facebook the next day. I immediately untagged the video but I was worried that the damage had already been done. Or rather how many of my work colleagues had already seen the video of my intoxication.

The problem is that professional colleagues and friends sometimes mix on Facebook and it is hard to draw the line sometimes. These professional/casual relationships can really improve if you include them in your social circle. Being on Facebook has actually resulted in scholarships and improved work opportunities. Everything I post is in good taste and I thought I trusted my friends to do the same.

It is difficult to manage your public image with these social websites. If you have or do not have an account. We often tagged a friend without Facebook account as “X not yet on Facebook”.

sandy June 11, 2009 at 4:32 am

I wish more people had your pragmatic approach. This past year in a work-related capacity a student was asked to come in for questioning about something on a Facebook page because the person whose page the comment was placed upon had been arrested under suspicion for a violent crime. The person who had written the comment – not the one who was arrested – was a fairly steady, easy-going kid who would never have been otherwise fingered by the police.

However, the most interesting part of this is that the police used Facebook. After the arrest they seem to have checked what was recently written by the detained person, and comments addressed to that person. Much of the talk about private/public divides is concerned with personal image and reputation with respect to work and study colleagues, but what about police? I can’t comment on approaches outside England, but at least here the police forces seem to be using particular individuals’ social networking information after arrests. It’s almost as though anything a person puts online, whether we try to make it public or private, becomes fair game.

There is already an established precedent for using public information on social networking sites, and even information on closed forums, for investigations into serious matters like human trafficking, abuse of children and child pornography, but what we’re seeing now is a slightly different kettle of fish. These are the issues that need to be discussed, and they need to be talked about outside the limited world of computer security and legal experts, who seem to be the only ones interested or concerned at this time.

Your W looks too much like Wikipedia’s symbol!

Harvey Kirkpatrick June 15, 2009 at 11:59 am

In the days of online forums, I was represented by an obscure username and icon, and I never shared personal details. Nowadays, Facebook is the only place where my life is on display for all to see. That said, less than 20% of my Facebook friends can see my photos, read/post to my wall, etc… The remainder see my basic info and nothing more.

On Twitter, my updates are posted on behalf of the website I write for, and although they might have a personal spin from time to time, overall they are far from personal. The same thing can be said about my representation on the blogs I write for. In both cases, I write under a pen name or on behalf of a business. In a way, I’m trying to detach my personal identity from my writing, but that’s not to say that I don’t stand for the quality, or accurateness of my work.

My reasoning for secrecy and pen names is two-fold. First and foremost, my day to day job is sometimes sensitive in nature, and unfortunately, this makes me less able to be as private in public as I would like. The second reason is an extension of the idea of anonymity, but it pertains more so to recognition. I do not want my face to be the public face for either blog or business I write for. My visage was never intended as a part of the brand strategy.

Facebook is an entirely different story. Same thing as was mentioned above, I do crazy shit from time to time, and can’t have people seeing it. Further, I didn’t think that my Grade 9 girlfriend needed to have access to my vacation photos, or want my boss to be able to post on my wall.

Hannah June 16, 2009 at 10:55 am

Not one drunk picture of me has surfaced on the internet. I’m either very lucky, or I lead a very dull life.

Once I officially take over my new job duties, I’m going to have to make my blog password-protected. Too many people / business interests will be looking for information about me and I don’t want my work life & personal stories to intersect in that way. It makes me sad because I enjoyed – for the most part anyway – the freedom to develop my writing and put it out there for the world to see, but that’s how it’s going to have to be.

Someone told me once never to put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing on a billboard during your morning commute. I think that’s pretty sage advice.

wooby June 27, 2009 at 10:14 am

First, let me apologize for not addressing your comments sooner. June has been, in a word, insane. It’s a frenzied period activity when everyone’s trying to wrap things up before vacation, while struggling to keep their brains from leaving before them. There hasn’t been a day without at least two deadlines and/or meetings–usually conflicting with eachother.
Thank you all for the incredible comments. I’m really pleased how the conversation has progressed here, and I’m hoping things will continue this way for the blog.
Megan: I wonder if former (current?) online message board users have an advantage in terms of recognizing the need for online anonimity? Are they better equipped to know when and how to protect their identity?
Gord: Unfortunately, not everyone has your good sense and journalism training guiding them to choose their words carefully. However, everyone done have the power to publish just as widely and immediately as any news outlet.
Anon: Very good point about your friends not being as responsible with your text/video/audio content. You can’t assume that they’ll be as judicious as you’d be. Perhaps Facebook should look into giving you sole control overy tagging items with your identity?
Sandy: I also have grave concern about law enforcement’s authority to hack into our “private” online information at will. Recent political moves in Canada have been made in an attempt to force ISPs to cough up private customer information to police, even without a warrant. Yikes.
As for my “W” favicon, Wooby was here long before Wikipedia, so Jimmy Wales can French kiss my “W.”
Harvey: Social media, and maybe the Web in general is just not a friendly envioronment for anyone requiring anonimity for the professional and/or private lives. Will this leave people behind unfairly as a larger percentage of the world’s population migrates online?
Hannah: I agree with the “billboard rule.” Ultimately, the Internet is a public space with a limitless memory.

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