Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Online Privacy and Online Exhibitionism

With various "national conversations" taking place in regards to online privacy in the wake of the NSA revelations, Ross Douthat quotes a writer who argues against the "think twice about what you put online" conventional wisdom:
… 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.)


Brandon said...

You're right that the diary example sits somewhat oddly here. It may be true that the primary obligation is for people not to read the diary, but I imagine people would get similar talkings-to if they were to pin up the pages of their diary where anyone would could see them, expecting people simply not to look.

Enbrethiliel said...


Some of the first things that come up when anyone googles my real name are the angry libertarian articles I wrote for LOL! It's a little embarrassing now, yes, but I can live it down. =)

Right after the first article came out, another blogger I had known for a while argued with me over some things I had written in it. My response was basically: "I understood all those things before I started writing, and think they are good points, but I knew that if I put them in, I wouldn't have been published." The article did not represent my real beliefs as much as it represented my understanding of a certain audience.

mrsdarwin said...

You needed a disclaimer with your articles: "The opinions herein are those of the site and do not necessarily reflect the author's views."

Jenny said...

I think you are just on the north side of the age of complete transparency on the internet. I'm about a year and change older than you and am also reticent to post too much online. My sister is about a year and change younger than you and still keeps a measure of privacy. My brother, who is six years younger than I am, is an entirely different story.

My cousins around his age also post everything unfiltered. I have a cousin who trashed her job and boss daily online and then was shocked--shocked!--when she got fired. Now I don't know if one had anything to do with the other, but I would read her daily rants and wonder where her filter was.

I definitely am more open online about my political and religious beliefs than in person. Mostly because I don't want to argue in anger. There are some people with whom I can have the friendly sparring match and generally enjoy it, but I would rather keep a relationship pleasant than find out my conversation partner cannot disagree without getting angry.

I do post under my real name, but never attach my last name. There are 40 trillion Jennys around my age. Good luck figuring out which one is me. I'm sure if someone were really interested, it could be discovered. I never used a handle because I could never create one I liked.

bearing said...

I occasionally wonder if the things I write will ever come back to bite me should I decide to re-enter the workforce.

Like you, I wanted to blog semi-anonymously -- I don't mind people being able to find my real name, but I don't necessarily want to make it obvious. I think one of the smartest things you did that I didn't was to pick a comment-handle/pseudonym that sounds a little bit like a "name," unlike mine, which is a gerund or an inanimate object depending on how you look at it.

Because when people link to your blog, they blithely write "As Darwin writes on DarwinCatholic..." even when they know your real name, but when people who know me link to me, they sometimes write "As Bearing, a.k.a. [insert my real name] writes on Bearing Blog...." and I really think it's just because "bearing" doesn't sound enough like a person's name to make the writers happy about the sentences they just wrote.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I think if I were to begin blogging today I'd probably pick a pseudonym, but back when I began I never anticipated having an audience of more that half a dozen people. Maybe that was naive of me, but I honestly didn't think anyone would be interested in anything I had to say. Then again, back then I think I did mostly blog things that few people would be interested in. I only found my voice as a blogger over time.

Enbrethiliel said...


The only time my lack of total transparency became an issue was when I started airing my thoughts on convert apologists. Someone who thought I was making cheap shots pointed out that the writers I was criticizing were all using their real names, while I did not have to bear the consequences of what I was saying. Of course, it took her exactly one second of Googling to find my real name--and at that time, I used my own picture for an avatar and was constantly taking pictures of my bylines in magazines.

There are similar blowups in the book blogosphere, and they almost always involve the same dynamic. An author who uses his real name gets his book panned by a blogger using a pseudonym. Bad reviews are a natural part of a writer's life, but is it fair to get them from people who seem to write with impunity?

Banshee said...

Actually, Enbrethiliel, newspaper book reviews back in the day (at least for some values of back in the day) used to come out from pseudonymous reviewers, just like restaurant reviewers often used pseudonyms.

Arf said...

You mean ... maybe ... on the internet they *do* know you are a dog ?!


Enbrethiliel said...


Banshee: That there's a precedent doesn't answer the question now being asked of whether or not it's fair.

Personally, I think this issue has been blown out of proportion and believe that things would be less heated if authors used pseudonyms at the same rate. But when one's personal life is used to sell a book the way a pop star's sex appeal is used to sell an album, that's not probably not "doable."

mrsdarwin said...

Many of my blogging friends know my real name and have occasionally linked to me by name instead of handle, but that has never bothered me. The only reason I blog anonymously is that Darwin started the blog that way all these years ago. But I've never said anything using the handle "MrsDarwin" that I'd be ashamed to have attributed to me under my real name, and I've always avoided writing anything that I would under no circumstances want revealed as "mine". For one thing, that would just be stupid in these days of easy searchability, and for another, I don't see writing on the internet as a kind of free pass for bad behavior, but then, I have a strong internal editor both online and in real life, which has probably saved me worlds in trouble in both realms.