Science Online Advice: Overthinking Online Privacy

This is the third post in which I'm pulling a revise-and-extend job on some things I said at Science Online at a few panels on bloggy stuff, and the one I'm least settled about. Previous posts covered the in how-to-do-outreach session (posted Monday and the blogging long term session (posted yesterday). This one covers the what-to-do-when-people-start-taking-you-seriously session.

I say that this is the one I'm least settled about because what I said in that panel had literally not occurred to me before listening to that discussion. I've been thinking about it off and on since, and am still not 100% happy with any of it, but it's more a matter of failing to find the right words than anything else.

The context was that the discussion very quickly went off into talking about how to maintain privacy, with lots of people talking about how they carefully police their Facebook friends, and are constantly on guard about what they can say where. All of which sounds incredibly draining to me-- while I have occasionally wished for a pseudonymous blog on which I could rant at length about work-related stuff that wouldn't be appropriate to discuss here, I suspect the mental strain of trying to disguise my identity would completely wipe out any cathartic benefit. Protecting a secret identity is hard work.

The thing that occurred to me during this discussion, which hadn't before, was that despite the many comments about how hard it is to protect privacy online, this isn't actually a problem unique to online life. And I began to think (and wondered out loud in the session) that the real problem might be that it's a mistake to think of online life as fundamentally different from in-person interactions.

I had a pretty miserable fall term, for reasons I can't talk about here, and a lot of the problem was tied up in my inability to talk about the problem, either here or in person. It would've been wildly inappropriate to talk about the issues in question on the blog (I did risk a few very oblique comments on Twitter), but there wasn't a whole lot more I could do in person-- the nature of the problem was such that I couldn't talk about it very widely. There were only a few people I could vent to about what was going on, so mostly I was forced to just quietly fume about it, which really took a toll. The problem is resolved, but I'm still not entirely over the stress it caused.

Or, to give a more positive example that I can talk more freely about, with both of our kids there was a long period when we knew Kate was pregnant, but weren't sharing that publicly. And the second time around, about a week before we went public with the news of The Pip's impending arrival, our department secretary asked me flat-out "Are you guys going to have another kid?" "We're thinking about it," I replied. She reminded me of that, a week later, when I came in with the ultrasound pictures, and was mock-angry about it.

The point is, I didn't treat my online life all that differently than my offline life. When I couldn't rant about work online, I wasn't getting to rant freely about it to anybody else, either. When we weren't posting about The Pip online, I wasn't telling our secretary about him, either, for exactly the same reason: the only real way to keep something private is to not tell anybody.

What suddenly struck me as odd in the discussion at Science Online is that this is something we understand perfectly well in our offline lives-- it's basically a fundamental bit of primate social interaction-- but we have weirdly different expectations for online interactions. And I'm not really convinced that's justified-- using a computer to mediate the interaction doesn't change the fact that there are humans on both ends of it, who will behave as humans have since time immemorial.

Now, there are issues here that I haven't thought out fully. One very good point that was raised was that in the absence of in-person non-verbal cues, people really do behave with somewhat less inhibition, and can be more cruel. It doesn't take more than a passing familiarity with Internet comment sections to recognize the truth in that. There's also the fact that text interactions easily lose nuances that are obvious in person, leading to blow-ups over misunderstood jokes and the like. I'm not quite sure what can be done about those, other than to be consciously aware of them as issues.

The question of personae was also raised-- that some people choose to behave in a very different manner online than offline, projecting a different personality on blogs and Twitter than in person. I'm less convinced that this is a problem, though, because this is something people do in person as well-- I behave in a slightly different manner when I'm at work with students than when I'm at work with other faculty, or home with my kids, or out with friends from college, etc. We all project different personae in different social settings, and we do it automatically, with very little conscious thought, because it's another of those fundamental human social interactions.

It may be that people are more likely to try to maintain an extreme split between their online persona and their offline default than they would between any two offline personae, possibly to a degree that isn't really tenable. I'd say that that's a matter of misplaced expectations, though-- mistakenly thinking that a separation between personae that would be untenable offline should somehow not cause problems online.

Anyway, as I said, that occurred to me during the session, and I probably didn't make my point very clearly, because I hadn't had time to think it through. I'm still not 100% certain it holds up, but it feels like there's something there-- that a big part of the way to deal with privacy, etc. in online life is to stop trying to make a sharp distinction between online and offline. It's all just life, at bottom using the same human social interactions whether you're using a keyboard or a telephone or talking across a table.

Please note that I'm not saying that there aren't valid reasons to want to be pseudonymous online, or to present a different persona than your offline default. What I'm saying is that the issues raised by this aren't fundamentally different just because it's happening online. The things you have to do if you're trying to keep some part of your life secret from people on the Internet are the exact same things you would need to do to keep part of your life secret from your co-workers, or your family. Doing it via the Web increases the number of people you're hiding stuff from, but that's a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Much as we might sometimes want it to, the Internet doesn't really offer any easy ways of dealing with issues of identity and privacy. The choices that need to be made are the same whether or not there's a computer involved. Real privacy is hard work, online or off, and ultimately comes down to not telling people things you don't want anyone to know.


While I've said it here before, I didn't say it in the session, so here's my social media policy: I will accept Facebook friend requests from anyone, and only de-friend people if they turn out to be spammers. I've muted quite a few people whose posted political opinions I find repellent, but they don't necessarily know that...

(Not you. I find your political philosophy fascinating.)

At the same time, I don't really put anything on Facebook that I wouldn't put here-- some photos from my phone end up there and not here because it's a hassle to get them onto the blog, but that's laziness, not a principled objection to anything. There are a very few private photos that I share only with some relatives, but that's just because I don't know their email addresses. Pictures that I really don't want anybody other than specific recipients to see (generally because they include somebody else's kids), I send via email. Most of what goes on Facebook is mirrored from Twitter, actually, because I'm too lazy to generate original content for many different media channels.

My online persona is slightly different than my offline one-- I curse a lot more in person, among other things-- but what you see is more or less what you get, on any of my social networks, computer mediated or not.

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I think one major difference between online and offline that you are neglecting is degree of permanence. If I say something incredibly stupid about physics in a group meeting and later realize my mistake then it probably does not go further than the room. If I say it in a blog comment then it is there forever, even if I later change my mind and retract it. If I act like a jerk and say something inappropriate in the pub then I can apologize and hopefully people will forgive me and forget about it. If I do the same on my blog then I can retract my statement, but people will probably already have analysed and dissected it elsewhere on the internet and the impression that I am a jerk will remain.

To properly deal with this, I would have to act as if I were standing in front of a very large audience every time I say anything on the internet, but this belies the fact of how easy it is to say something on the internet compared to gathering a large crowd in front of me. In addition, it would be very boring if people moderated themselves to the same extent on the internet as they do in front of large public audiences.

In summary, I agree that there is no difference in principle. The rules of conduct are the same online and offline. However, there is a huge difference in practice, since I don't have a large crowd of people following me around all day in person.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 06 Feb 2013 #permalink

It's not even the permanence, it's the searchability.

If I do something stupid in a restaurant, say, I might not be able to go back there. But probably the worst of it is exactly that-- I can't go back there. There's an outside chance, I guess, that a member of the staff will move to a new restaurant, but the effect is nearly always contained.

On the internet, you do something stupid, get kicked out of a restaurant, then find the maitre d of every other restaurant Googles you as soon as you walk in and decides whether or not they want you there. Then at your next job interview, the HR staff does the same thing.

I don't know if you want to call that "fundamental" (to be honest, I'm not sure if I want to call that "fundamental") but I can sure see the argument.

By John Novak (not verified) on 07 Feb 2013 #permalink

I agree that, in principle, anything stupid you say on the Internet can easily be Googled up. I'm not sure it's all that big a deal in practice, though-- the number of people who really do Google people they meet seems to be considerably lower than you might think from the number of people who talk about the dangers of having your past actions Googled. And the level of dumb that genuinely jeopardizes your next job is probably closer to "removed from the premises by the police" than "kicked out by the waitstaff."

My guess is that it's a thing that goes in waves-- it becomes all the rage, HR departments demand your Facebook passwords, then the backlash comes, etc.

By John Novak (not verified) on 07 Feb 2013 #permalink