Over a decade ago, I realized what was happening. All those message boards and web postings of the early internet were starting to be very visible and very tied to my name and what would become “My Online Identity.” I had some aliases at the time in addition to my own name. And I eradicated all traces of all of them. Because at that time in the evolution of the Internet, before the all seeing eye of search engines and bots crawling every link they could reach, you still could make all these online bits disappear.
Now, that’s impossible. And I’m quite surprised that most people don’t realize one simple fact of online living: Online is a public space.
There is no real privacy in this public space, just as walking through the streets of most largely populated cities means not only are you being seen by other people and your actions are being recorded by their consciousnesses, but more likely than not, you’re actually being recorded by a traffic signal camera, a security camera inside a department store that has visibility into the sidewalk in front of it, or other public-facing security cameras that are everywhere. Unless you are a hermit, you are living publicly. If you are online, you are living publicly and digitally.
The potential for witnesses to you standing up on a digital soap box and expressing your views is potentially much much larger than doing the same on any street corner can be, simply because there are no logistical space concerns to deal with. The only determining limitation to how many people can see what you do online is how much traffic can your site withstand.
This is a double-edged sword. It’s why blogs & Twitter became popular. It’s revolutionized communications and connectivity and the way we work. We can have tightly integrated teams that are spread across the globe, but communicating nicely thanks to email, IM, chatrooms, and video chats and video conferences.
What most people don’t realize is that just as you put on clothing before you walk out the front door of your home each day in meatspace, it’s important to curate your appearance online as well. The more effort you put into having your own voice—in a blog or on Twitter or via the pictures you share on Flickr or Instagram or in deciding what places you’ve visited that you actually want to share via Foursquare or any of the dozens of mobile social apps that now share where along with when along with what—the more success you’ll have at having some form of privacy online. It’s important to cover your privates.
Most people over the years, when they have met me in person, make remarks about all the pictures I post of my son, all the things I’ve blogged about, and all the things I tweet. These comments are usually a much more polite version of an accusation that I am over-sharing. Sometimes, they’re not polite and they’re very “Oh you’re one of those people that posts a picture of their kid every day” or “You share way too much.”
However, I think quite a bit about what I share and all of it is nicely curated. The me you see here is what I want you to see. There are reasons for the parts that I overshare: namely that my family and friends are spread far and wide from where I live and have been for years. People who really know me get more from what I post than people who don’t. Because they know me. They all see Jackson and have experienced him growing up to a certain degree due to the daily pictures. Some strangers have done the same, but most people don’t care and so filter it out.
But online, believe it or not, despite my “over-sharing,” I keep my privates private. Everything that should be hidden and encrypted is. I never send any email or DM that I wouldn’t expect some unintended audience to read.
We are all being watched all the time. Privacy is for the most part an illusion and has been for quite some time. No reason to panic about it. Just keep your privates private, present a nicely curated public self like you should, knowing that almost everywhere and especially everything you do online is public, and embrace one last truth: there’s too much data out there to process well and no one cares about what you’re doing more than you unless you give them reason to care.
You can hide what’s private within the confines of those truths. But it takes attention and care. Pay attention. Care.
NOTE: This post has been cross-posted on Medium.