… we now find not only kids, but adults (especially new adults) getting constantly dinged with the dire warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. I think this is probably patently untrue in a purely physical sense; it strikes me as probable that fifty years from now, the whole electronic record of our era will be largely lost in a sea of forgotten passwords, proprietary systems, faulty hardware, and compatibility issues. But it should also be untrue in, dare I say it, the moral sense. Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it.I'm not sure that I'm just barely older than the social media generation, or just that I have a stronger sense of reticence than many, but I've definitely been one of those who shakes my head at some of the things slightly younger people write on blogs and on facebook. This reticence is why I blog semi-anonymously. I don't make it the hardest thing in the world to figure out my real name, but I'd rather that this blog was not the first thing to pop up on Google if someone searched my real name.
The thing is, unless one takes a number of precautions, what one writes online is not like a diary. A diary traditionally kept on paper in a book that is kept in a private place and provides through it's appearance some appearance of being not-meant-for-general-consumption. (Until one is dead and famous, at which point the full critical edition of one's every thought can be published. Which is, of course, why the Victorians had a habit of burning their papers late in life.)
When one writes online, however, one generally writes with the specific intention that people read it. Certainly, when I write here, I do so in hopes that people will read it, that reading it will cause them to think and perhaps that they will even respond in some way. Facebook is slightly more private, in that many of one's activities there are (or can be) restricted so that they can be seen only by one's "friends". However, friends lists tend to be rather long, and especially among the young people often don't seem to think very much about who exactly is on that list when they go posting pictures, rants and links.
I would agree that it's rude and inappropriate for a co-worker or boss to try to sneak into areas of one's online life that are intentionally kept private. But one also needs to be aware that when one writes things online under one's own name, people who are simply looking for business-relevant information about you, they may stumble across your public online activities. And if those activities involve posting pictures of roadkills wearing wigs, or your advocacy of white supremacy, or your grisly fantasies about how to kill Sarah Palin, the friendly coworker who stumbles upon the information is not going to think about you the same way in the future.
This isn't something that is unique to the modern world. Anytime we show one persona in some circumstances and another in others, we open ourselves up to the sudden convergence of social sets one had meant to keep separate. So, for instance, if a high school teacher has a sideline as a member of the Chippendales and one day the mothers of several of his students happen to attend his show, these women have not invaded his privacy. He is the person who has chosen to publically engage in activities that perhaps he wouldn't like everyone he knows to be aware of. Similarly, if one is at a party gleefully telling an embarrassing anecdote about another person, only to realize that person is standing behind you, that person is not spying on you. The fault if yours for choosing to say something that you would be uncomfortable having the subject hear.
The online world is similar, except that it's even easier to forget who may be standing behind you, because the space behind your back is large in both space and time. You could write that very satisfying rant about your sister-in-law now, only to have her read it by accident three years hence after your mother has bragged to her, "Did you know that Alfonse writes an incredibly popular blog?"
It's at times frustrating to keep this in mind, because the incredibly enticing thing about the online world is that it allows one to open up and talk with like-minded people (and debate different minded ones) in a way that would often be uncomfortable in person. You all have a pretty good idea what my political opinions are, but most of my coworkers don't, and I generally make no effort to make them aware of my political opinions nor to become aware of theirs. Since I have to work with them on a daily basis, it's a lot easier if they aren't aware of any of my beliefs that they might find reprehensible and vice versa. I probably miss out on some good friendships because of this reticence. Since I avoid bringing up controversial topics in many settings, I probably know people who share my beliefs and yet never realize the commonality. I probably also miss out on conversations and friendships with people who do disagree with my beliefs, but are capable of discussing and respecting them nonetheless. However, given how many people aren't capable of getting along well with those they disagree with (and that I'd really rather not have to know about the offensive beliefs of some of those I deal with daily) I keep this reticence up. The internet is, thus, the area in which I'm able to discuss a much wider array of topics much more openly. It works well for that because people who are offended can easily leave (and those who become offensive can be blocked.)
However, it's precisely because the internet is such a good place to have the kind of conversations we'd be hesitant to have in many of our usual social circles, that you should think twice about what you put out there under your own name in public venues. If you choose to post writing or images extensively under your own name, you had better be prepared for the writer's curse of everyone knowing what you think (or at least what you say you think.)