If Facebook has done anything, it has helped make users more aware of privacy issues on the Internet. Personally, though, the issue of privacy has always seemed plain enough.
Like many middle-aged people, I’m sometimes appalled by what the majority of people seem willing to disclose on the Internet. Many people seem to forget that they’re not just having a one-on-one conversation, but leaving a trace that anybody – or, at least on Facebook, dozens or hundreds, depending on their number of friends – can read. They disclose not only their plans for the night, but even the details of their sexual encounters and relationships.
In some cases, this disclosure may be given because the person giving it is a genuinely warm person. In other, the Tom Cruise Syndrome may be in full play – you know, the idea that, if you declare your emotions publicly enough or loudly enough or often enough, you and everyone else will come to believe it. Mostly, though, I have the impression that people just don’t think of the audience to which they’re broadcasting; I’ve noticed the same tendency to get lost in a private world with people talking on their phones in public. But, whatever the reason, I think the term “overshare” becomes relevant here.
By contrast, I am more cautious about what I disclose. I’ve been using the Internet since 1991, so I’ve had more time to think about such things than the average Internet user. Also, writing is a burlesque-like game of alternately revealing and concealing your person, so writing as I do for tens or hundreds of thousands on a regular basis tends to bring privacy issues into focus. Moreover, I have got myself into trouble with an indiscreet email or two. All of this experience makes me cautious about what I will say online, so much so that there are some topics on which I simply won’t express my opinion. You can ask me in person or maybe on the phone if you know me well, but some things I want to keep off the record.
I don’t mind my contact information being available, so long as spammers can’t get hold of it too easily. It was long ago scattered across the Internet anyway.
My personal rule is simple: I imagine that I am speaking what I write online at a crowded party. Before I post, I ask myself if I would be embarrassed if a sudden silence fell over the party and everybody could hear what I was saying. If the answer is yes, then I don’t post it. Everything’s really that simple.
When I talk about other people (especially those closest to me), I may adapt the rule: If a sudden silence fell over the party while I was talking about them, would they be embarrassed?. But, often, I want to quote someone or mention what they are doing or how they affect me. In these cases, I generally try to anonymize them, removing any reference that isn’t strictly necessary so that the person I am talking about will be hard for most of my audience to identify.
Such a policy isn’t completely convenient. It limits what I talk about online. Often, a story is diminished if I remove the references. Once or twice, people have also jumped to wild conclusions about me because of what I haven’t mentioned; for example, because I rarely mentioned my partner, some people have assumed that I am a loner or accused me of being gay.
But these problems are rare enough that I can live with them. Certainly, they’re less of a problem than leaving a trail of embarrassing comments or photos that can come back to haunt me.