As blogging has become mainstream and students from middle-school on up through college and graduate school have taken to it as quickly as wildfire, some bloggers are getting caught up in privacy concerns. Bloggers tend to think, "Write about it now, worry about it later," believing the catharsis of writing is more important than the responsibility of privacy.
Since so many bloggers are actually diarists, writing in a free-association style that is cathartic, this is not unexpected. In fact, such an exercise is likely beneficial to the writer and helps them socialize in our connected society (and their very connected peer group). But writers need to understand the consequences of such writing up front, and edit as they go (or go back later to edit accordingly).
What You Write Stays Around Forever
This is the first rule of the Internet and one that a lot of people either blithely ignore, or tend to take for granted. If you're writing in a public blog, once that writing is indexed by search engines (which happens automatically and continuously), your entry may be cached (a copy of the writing) forever. While you may take measures to try and undo the damage later on, your task will be far greater at that time (and may be impossible). While many people are aware of the large search engines that cache online documents, such as the Internet Archive and Google, few know there are dozens of other services that are less well-known that also store cached documents. Getting these copies removed a decade from now will take a lot of legwork, emails, and frustrating phone calls.
You may be asking yourself, "Yeah, but why would I ever want to do that? I'm proud of my writing!" You may very well be, at this point in your life. You can't imagine ever being anything different than you are today -- that's human nature. But you'll have to imagine that there's a chance, a pretty good chance for most, that you may not be as proud of the drunken party photos, the night of indiscriminate sex, or the love triangle you wrote about for 6 months on your blog 10 years from now while applying for a great job for a company you'd love to work for. Or a date with a great guy you met through the online personals (and who, for fun, Googles your name). Or the college or graduate school application office. Or the adoption agency whom you're trying to get a child through. Or the religious organization that is considering you for more responsibilities in their group.
While you may not be able to imagine any of that applying to you 5 or 10 or 15 years from now, guess again. Few of us know what we'll be doing or where we'll be so far down the road. "So why should I try and plan for it if I have no idea what I'll be doing?" You don't have to plan for it, you just have to be responsible in your online behavior if you want to allow for the greatest amount of possibilities in your future.
Pseudonyms Don't Mean You're Anonymous
Many people believe they are protecting themselves online by using a pseudonym, a made-up name that they use as their online identity. The problem with this belief is that all too often, people use the same pseudonym for many different places they travel online. If you don't use different pseudonyms for different situations or purposes online, you're likely to make your identity fairly easy to discover.
For instance, many people choose their first pseudonym when choosing a new user account for a free email address, such as those offered by Yahoo! or Google. They might use something innocuous as "smileycat64" and begin emailing friends and family members from the email address. Then they hang out in an online gaming community and use the same login for that community, because it's easier to remember. They also use it for their IM identity, and even for their e-commerce logins at Amazon.com and eBay. They may have put an entry in someone else's guestbook using the name and some minor identifying information (like their first name). Replying to a few political blogs in the comments area also seemed like an innocuous activity. Many people won't even think twice about using the same email address on their resume.
Without ever having blogged a single word themselves, this person has given their potential employer or college or date or adoption agency a wealth of information. All someone has to do is search for the first part of your email address online and find out all sorts of things about who you are, your interests, what you have to say. Add a blog to the mix and the information someone can search on has just increased exponentially.
Identifying Information While Blogging
Even if you play it safe and use a pseudonym you haven't used anywhere else online, you need to be cognizant of the details you give of your life. Photographs are easily tracked back to a real name (far more easily than I think many people imagine). Details about where you live, what you do in your free time, where you hang out, all of that information makes it relatively easy for someone researching a real person to connect it to the online identity. "But I never used my real name!" That may be true, but unless you give everyone else in your life unique pseudonyms as well (not nicknames used in real life), and everyone writing about you has also given you a unique pseudonym, it's just a matter of connecting enough dots. Each blog entry is a potential dot. The more dots there are, the easier the identity is to verify.
Of course, researching in this method isn't an exact science and if nothing is readily found fairly easily through search engines, most potential employers or the like aren't going to spend hours trying to connect a bunch of dots. This may be more of an issue if you're trying to get security classification in the government (Yes, you never know! Even a VA hospital does a thorough security background check.), but it's something to be aware of nonetheless.
You Have No Privacy, Get Over It?
In the late 1990's, the head of a large Internet computer company made the statement, "Privacy is dead, get over it." There's some truth to that statement, that in order to ensure one's privacy, one should never make a single public utterance or statement. For absolute privacy, say nothing online. However, that is not a realistic strategy in this day and age. The Internet is the great communicator vehicle, and it will not be silenced simply because of privacy issues.
Instead, all one has to do is to think about these issues now, before you leaving a serious imprint online. Even if you've already started, it's not too late to create new, separate identities, erase as much vestiges of the old ones, and be more careful in the future.
Privacy is as much a state of mind as it a set of techniques or actions you can take. If you begin to think of your life as a private entity, one where you're willing to let certain people share certain parts of it, you'll gain a greater confidence in how to share online. Changing your mindset to one where privacy is at the forefront of your mind rather than as an afterthought can help you make wiser choices as you live your life.
Public Versus Private Blogs
One of the easiest ways you can take greater control over your privacy online is to understand the blogging choices available to you. One choice previously discussed was how to better choose an online identity, one that isn't already previously linked to your online imprint. Choosing and thinking more about what to share and how to share your life with the world is also beneficial.
Another choice is whether or not to blog in public. Most people choose to publicly blog because that's the default for almost every blogging software and service available. But just because technology has made it the default selection doesn't mean you have to accept that choice. If your software or service doesn't offer private blogging, find one that does. Private blogs allow you to open your blog only to your small group of friends (and family) that you want to see it. While I understand one of the exciting aspects of blogging is having a worldwide audience, it's also one of the risks of blogging. If you're willing to accept that risk, be public, certainly. But if you're really writing more of a diary (as much for yourself as for others), consider the private blog.
Be aware that just because a service or community limits who can view or participate in the community (e.g., through a login system) doesn't mean your words are going to be any more private. There are some popular college blogging and community sites, for instance, which give students a false sense of security and privacy because they are "closed" communities. The truth is, nothing remains completely private online for very long because everything can be copied and pasted into something else. The false sense of security these communities offer may be even more dangerous than regular public communities, because they lead people to believe they have more privacy than they do.
Remember, blogging is supposed to be fun and interesting! You don't have to be a naked, open book to take part in the fun and excitement of blogging. But if you do choose that route, just be aware the long-term consequences of your decision and the potential issues it may raise for you in the future. You have many choices available to you, so take a few minutes to choose wisely.Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Nov 2005
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
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