Saturday, January 17, 2009

On Privacy and "Business Casual" Blogging

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

I first read that in Douglas Coupland's 1995 novel Microserfs -- one of my favourite novels, by the way. I don't think Coupland made it up; one of his characters uses the phrase as though it was already a generally-understood truism. And was in 1995, when people still talked about the capital-I Internet and used the phrase "information superhighway" only a little bit self-consciously.

In other words, being online and secret identities go back a long way.

There are many good reasons to post online anonymously, or using a pseudonym. One of those advantages is that it makes it possible to share things with the entire world, without the entire world knowing that you are actually you. You can blow the whistle on something dangerous or illegal, vent about something without getting into trouble, ask for help about something that's embarrassing or really sensitive, something you might be judged or attacked for.

Online anonymity, in other words, does not exist solely to facilitate spamming, or so that dolts can safely insult one another's opinions about Spider-man, or to allow teenagers to get away with posting videos about setting their sister's hamster on fire. It has real and valuable benefits.

However, anonymity cuts both ways. Another advantage of the the Internet is supposed to be how easy it is to reach large numbers of people all over the world -- but that can be hard to do under a pseudonym, unless what you're promoting is your pseudonym.

Which is all very well if you want to increase the profile of an online persona called Number1HarryPotterFan4EVAR, but problematic if you want to tie what you do online to something you do in analog.

What I'm getting at here, is simply this: Most of what I do online, I do under my real name. Including this blog, which is public and which is one of the top 20 or 30 returns when you do a Google search on me.

This is complicated further by the fact that I have the blessing and curse of not being named John Smith. There are one or two people who come close with variant spellings, but as far as I can tell, I'm the only Stephen Geigen-Miller in the world.

Which makes it very, very easy to be certain which Stephen Geigen-Miller you're reading about.

I know for a fact that my current employers Googled me before I got hired; my wife Googled me before our first date.

So: Everything I do online impacts on my offline life. And it also impacts on everything else I say and do online -- including endeavours that I share with other people, like Greg for Xeno's Arrow and Patrick for Cold Iron Badge. Besides being careful about the impression I make of myself, I also have to think about how what I say and do will reflect on my work and my creative partners.

This means that, in a very real way, whenever I'm posting online, I'm at work. It's a pretty friendly, casual work environment, to be sure -- but it's still the office. It's public, not private. and there are some things that it is not appropriate to discuss in public, or at the office.

(This may just be my WASPy, suburban upbringing talking, but it's how I feel.)

These things include, as far as I'm concerned, finances, my sex life, things that would violate someone else's privacy, and beyond a certain point, personal health issues.

I am comfortable with disclosing, in this casual office we share, if I've been sick, particularly if that affects any of my de-erstwhiling processes. I'm comfortable with talking about how I'm trying to eat better, get to the gym more and lose weight. It's a tough slog, and a sometimes depressing, frustrating and even scary process, and I need to talk about it and ask for support in order to get back to the way I want my life to be.

But that's about as far as I'm willing to go. I have limits regarding how detailed and specific I'm going to get, and that's where my personal definition of crossing the line between "business casual" and "icky personal health issues" lies.

And just to be clear: This is a choice I make that is for and about me, nobody else. Other people can and should go into as much detail about their lives as they want to. I follow some blogs -- some of which are under the authors's real names! -- that share very personal information, about health, relationships, and/or sexuality.

And just to be absolutely painfully crystal-clear, I'm also not upset or offended that anyone cares enough to want to know more about what's going on in my life. That's wonderful, and you are very sweet. But let's have that conversation when I'm not at work, okay?

Now that that's been dealt with, there's still the matter I alluded to in my previous post, the other not-writing, not-the-gym back-from-erstwhiling I wanted to discuss. More on that next time.

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