Five Rules To Live In Public

For some reason (an intersection between tech-geek tendencies and narcissism, no doubt), I have been an early adopter when it comes to the self-publishing elements enabled by the Web. I started blogging before the word had been coined, was an early adopter of Twitter (March 2007), Facebook, and more. The advent of the Social Web has been particularly interesting to me. I already had been “public” about my day-to-day life, writing a number of essays for publication on various aspects. But the Social Web (especially Facebook) amped things up and — as it has for many of us — forced the question: How do you present a face that is at once authentic, personal, and professional?

In other words: How do you live in public?

Recent changes announced by Facebook (“top news,” the “ticker,” “timelines”) have people quite worried about their privacy. People are worried about how they will live in public. One of the effects of the new Facebook interface is that more of what we do online is easily accessible (it was always visible, but we could pretend it wasn’t there because it was a bit buried.) Some are threatening to quit Facebook, but with 800 million users it is likely that as many people will quit as actually followed through with their threats to move to Canada if their favored presidential candidate did not win.

No, people will have to come to grips with living in public.

Over the past few years, based on trial and error, I have developed a simple set of rules that help. They are common sense, but they may be useful to you:

  1. Never assume something on a social network is truly “private.”This is the cardinal rule. Many social network services provide privacy controls. Use them, for sure, but assume they will fail. A policy change may invalidate them, the company may get purchased and the new owner will have no obligation to uphold previous privacy deals, or — most likely — you will make a mistake and make something public that you thought would be private.

    It’s like the advice communications professionals give to people when talking to reporters: Never go “off the record.” Sure, maybe you can trust the journalist you are interviewing with, but once something is in his or her notebook (or even just in their head), they might make a mistake later and forget what aspect was private.

    So, what do you do if you simply must (for creative or personal reasons) publish anonymously. It is simple: build an alternate identity and only use that identity in ways that do not connect with your current social networks. (It is easy. First, install a new Web browser that will be your “anonymous only” browser. For instance, if you use Chrome, install Firefox. Using the anonymous-only browser, set up a new email with Gmail. Use that email and the new browser to subscribe to a standalone blogging service that you do not currently use, whether it be Posterous, Tumblr, WordPress, or Blogger. Blog to your heart’s content under your alias. Never, ever interact with your anonymous material using your usual browser.)

  2. Get comfortable with your work colleagues knowing you have a life outside of the office.Once you have come to grips with the idea that “privacy” online is an illusion, everything else flows from that. Assume you are always in public. This will drive you insane unless you get over the anxiety. For many people, this anxiety centers around work colleagues. People will think less of me professionally if they see me in nonprofessional settings, people think.

    But, think about it. Do you respect your colleagues (or boss) less, after you see a photo of them bowling? I didn’t think so. Same goes for you. Unless you live a double life (in which case this blog post will not help you), it is important to accept that your work persona will coincide more with your non-work persona.

    This has been happening inexorably in the professional world for years. Yes, social networks have helped it along but it is a trend that goes beyond the computer screen. Some may dislike that you can no longer say, “It’s the weekend. No one needs to know what I do.” However, it is difficult to avoid the fact that this is true.

    What this means in practice is that you will need to get comfortable with the idea that photos of your yoga class may be visible by colleagues. (Don’t like that? See Rule 1).

  3. Choose “iconic” connections and use them as tests.The best way I have found to live with this, and to stay out of trouble, is to create icons. I have three such icons. One is a very straitlaced colleague, one is an older family member, and one is a close friend. It helps if they are Facebook friends.

    Whenever I post something, I do a gut check: What if my icons see it? If I have a problem with that, I do not post. (See Rule 1.)

    This may sound bogus, but it is truly a filter I use. I include emails in this. If I am typing it on my screen, I review it for whether it passes the icon test. I have written and then deleted many, many emails, status updates, blog posts, and chats.

  4. Learn how your sharing works on each network. Review privacy settings regularly. Monitor yourself. It is critical to really understand what you are sharing. Yes, Facebook makes changes (as do other social sharing networks). You must take the time to understand how it works. This may take longer than you wish it would — but it does not take as long as you fear it might. Take five minutes and understand the tools you use.

    Every week or two, you should review your privacy settings. This takes sixty seconds. (On Facebook, go to “Home,” and click the little down arrow in the upper right. Choose “Privacy settings.” It’s all there.)

    Most important, periodically monitor yourself. Facebook allows you to see your profile as others see it. Go to your profile (click your own name) and choose “View as…” on the upper right. Now, type in the name of one of your icons from Rule 3.

    What do you do if you see something you would rather not have available, even after all that care you’ve taken? Simple. See below, Rule 5.

  5. Do not hesitate to delete past information.This last rule is a little controversial. There is an ethos among social network users that once something is published, it should stay published. I completely disagree with that.

    What exists on your profile is a snapshot of you — make sure it is flattering. Delete with impunity.

    There are exceptions to this, but they are up to you. For instance, I am a co-founder of a blog (now a Facebook page) called Rockville Central. It is quasi-journalistic, so we do not delete or alter previous posts except in extreme cases of abuse or profanity. That is part of the deal on that site.

    In general, though, for my own individual accounts, I maintain and curate them so they represent me putting my best foot forward.

How about you? How do you live in public? Do you have a favorite tip?
Share it in the comments!

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