Allow me to introduce one of my biggest perennial pet peeves: the act of sharing way too much information.
Call it professionalism, paranoia, or common sense, when it comes to the ability to share information about each other and ourselves online, the old adage applies: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
At the low end of the spectrum, giving the world too much of yourself may be mildly entertaining (or in other cases annoying) to the other users who stumble across your Facebook page and can suddenly figure out how many times in a day you go to the washroom or re-blog embarrassing photos. On the other side of things, if you’re not careful it’s frighteningly easy to end up sharing information that could cause direct and serious harm to reputation, finances, and family members. A common phenomenon to all parts of this is the persistence of data, where hurtful comments and regrettable disclosures can come embarrassingly home to roost at a much later time, sometimes years or decades down the road thanks to today’s perfect storm of automated archiving services and unpredictable human interfaces.
Conversely, given the immersive nature of the Internet and multitude of users online at any given time, as well as the sheer volume of web pages and content, it can be said there’s a certain amount of background noise that needs to be overcome when dealing with the desire to establish and maintain a virtual presence or digital identity. If you’re looking to make more connections with others, be it for business, knowledge, or pleasure, then just how far should you take it? How much is too much?
First, I’ll indulge my readers with the Big Ten, a list of things you will probably never want to have floating around online. This is a meta study based on the hundreds of web pages, surveys, and reviews I’ve encountered over the years. As always, your own mileage may vary.
The Big Ten: What you Never Want to Share Online
- Anything related to your password. You’d think this one speaks for itself, but there are still people out there who naïvely post login credentials or reminders for their friends or co-workers to use on shared blogs, accounts, or services.
- Anything you don’t want the public to know. Don’t fool yourself into believing that just because something is relegated to a single unconnected profile, it’s going to elude the prying eyes of search engines. The Internet is rife with tales of others’ false sense of security gone horribly wrong. If you don’t think you can deal with the consequences of something going viral and becoming available to a general audience, maybe you shouldn’t be posting it in the first place.
- Dirty laundry and attention-seeking. Whether it’s workplace politics, angsty criticism, gossip, feuds, or booze-fuelled rants, having any level of involvement in these things is likely to make you look like a tremendous ass in front of others, especially online. First impressions last a long time and anyone looking to grow their friendships, social opportunities, or careers is well advised to steer clear. The Internet is one of the first places most managers and new contacts look for reasons to exclude someone from the selection process.
- Financial information. Besides the fact that the Internet has roving gangs of organized identity thieves scouring pages for anything that might be useful, do you really need another reason not to share your portfolio or credit card details online? Deal only with sites from reputable companies whose practices you know well, and don’t reveal your information to anyone else for any reason.
- Medical information. This is almost never a good idea, even if you’re doing something positive like running a cancer awareness benefit. Revealing a person’s medical history online makes the information freely available, and can come back to harm them in the form of bullying, discrimination, or career problems. The same is true of sharing one’s own medical details before an audience. As broadcasters, we have absolutely zero control over what our audiences do with the materials we disseminate.
- Photos or information of children. By putting these materials online, it’s possible to inadvertently volunteer enough to not only permit a total stranger to track down your child, but also to pick the child out of a crowd, appeal to their personality, groom them, abduct them, and maybe even know where to send the ransom note. More often though, grooming ends offline with molestation, arrest, rape, or murder. Put safety first and make it your point to ensure children are educated in media awareness.
- Movements, routines, and events. Just like you wouldn’t put a note on the front door saying you’re away on vacation, it makes even less sense to broadcast the same details worldwide through your social network pages. Are you keeping in touch with friends, or begging to be burglarized? You may want to consider this point especially well before posting your MyTracks logs or other geolocation data to a blog. To your eyes it’s innocuous data; to a criminal’s eyes it’s gold.
- Address and phone number. In one case, groups of trolls taking part in a cyber-bullying mob sent stacks of pizzas to the victim’s home. In another, SWAT teams were sent to the residence of a prominent cyber-bullying expert. Any questions?
- Talking work. If it’s day to day details of what goes on in the workplace, or worse, complaints about work, there’s probably no good reason for putting it online. Apart from being a fertile bed for security breaches or disciplinary action to take root, it’s unflattering to the image of the person who posts it.
- Sister sites. Unless you have a specific strategy for integration of multiple sites to promote your online persona, it’s a bad idea to tie compartmentalized social media profiles to one another. For most people, the audience that’s viewing each profile is different from the ones viewing other content, as one profile may be dedicated to friends, another to family, and perhaps a third tailored to employers. Therein lies the reality of taking your life online: it’s multifaceted, and you have to understand a lot about the right time and place to convey specific information. Tying every profile together only works if it’s aimed at a very general audience and the content is clear and inoffensive. Otherwise, you may risk confusing everyone and drawing lots of negative feedback.
Next are the other important questions: what do you want to have floating around online, and how exactly do you integrate multiple profiles successfully across multiple sites?
To the first, I generally advise a conservative approach: share only as much of yourself as is absolutely essential to do the things you need to accomplish online. Unless social experimentation and sharing are specifically what you seek (are you looking to befriend strangers and find new friends?) there’s usually no good reason to move beyond this stage for the time being.
Likewise, if you’re new to cyberspace and only just becoming familiar with how information is managed and how people interact online, you’d do best to keep it simple until you’ve earned your stripes and boosted your overall awareness. The current incarnation of the Internet is even more of an electronic Wild West than it was ten years ago, and there are many customs and nuances with which one should first become acclimated.
As far as the second question goes, when linking profiles you should proceed with caution. You don’t want to alienate your core audience, but at the same time, you don’t want to close off the user experience for new or returning readers. Establish a general policy on how you plan to deal with the sharing, collection, and publication of all information and media. This can take many forms, ranging from a basic list in point form to the most comprehensive TOS agreement. Next, determine what each of your audiences looks like, and their general demographics? Once you have a better grasp of that, things will fall into place more easily as you can better determine how much crossover would be appropriate.
In my own life, I’ve found it useful to maintain compartmentalization of the more private circles (i.e. Facebook, which I use only for family and friends), and incorporate some overlap from my general sites. This way, private circles remain in their own space but receive regular updates from the photo blogs and other public content I release. This is most easily administered from an independent central site like CrimsonHalo.com, because thanks to the current generation of blog software and APIs, it’s relatively easy to add syndication tools.
In the end, the rule to remember is that over-sharing is as counterintuitive as under-sharing. Do what is essential to meet your needs, make it personal but not excessively so, and expand your explorations cautiously with an eye to the Big Ten. What you post today could have a huge impact in the future, so endeavor to be human in your dealings, but above all else be a decent one. If you doubt the redeeming value of content, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to leave it by the wayside.