Learn to cautiously segment your life to protect your online self
In December 2015, Chattanooga writer Rachel Stewart entered on her Facebook page: “This time, on this day in 2010, I was in the deep dark black of anesthesia, while the surgeons did their best to remove my brain tumor…after last year’s difficult clinical trial, I finally quit running. I finally sat down and faced some things. I’m still facing them, quietly, on a daily basis. So it’s worth sharing this again. Because I am so damn proud I finally said all the things I was meaning to say all those years ago.” She then linked an xoJane article on the topic of her illness and recovery.
Rachel is a woman of rare courage and spirit. She is also a blogger and cosplayer, an avid chronicler of life in words, pictures, and con appearances. When she narrates and publicly claims a portion of her history, she’s putting her story in the hands of multiple audiences, who have the potential to lift her up or to hurt her in a variety of ways. Any of us who live vividly online could attract a painful comment—or a disdainful human representative—or a stalker with an army of bored and angry 4chan followers.
Typical of many people nowadays who play out sections of their lives online, Rachel would have to radically redesign her doings to become either Internet-anonymous or reduced to a dour LinkedIn page. What would be diminished can be heard in her lines above: Pride. Speaking out. Courage. Camaraderie.
Others—mommy bloggers, game streamers, and home studio rappers, just for a start—have online personalities that contribute to their livelihoods. Still, living “publicly” on one’s computer or tablet can be perilous: on the vanilla end, a potential hiring manager may not like one’s latest post; on the deep trouble end, one may acquire enemies or suitors who won’t take “no” for an answer and who may press their cause by—for instance—doxing or swatting their targets.
(“Doxing” means revealing identities, phone numbers and other pertinent information online, especially for others to make malicious use of; “swatting” means calling in a SWAT team on a target, for instance, by anonymously reporting that someone at an address is suicidal and has a hostage.)
How does one negotiate between personal safety and the need to speak freely in the virtual or partly virtual Agora?
Rachel and I ask another acquaintance, Gordon R. Merrill, an information security specialist who holds a master’s degree in information assurance and is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional, what steps denizens of the online world should take to keep themselves safe.
People online are no different from people anywhere else, he tells us. The main differences are the way information is collected, tracked and disseminated, and the ability of bad actors to further their reach, in space and in time.
“We have created and fostered an environment that makes it easier for people to do wrong,” he says. Because online media creates the possibility for very impulsive acting with very permanent results (think an angry Tweet) consequences are magnified, even as public speech is quicker and easier.
“Cosplay is a little weird; I started it as a hobby because I liked costuming,” she says. “I gained some new friends; some really close, almost like family, and others more like acquaintances.
“What is popular [in this community] is to have a page with updates related to the hobby where everyone can see you. But Facebook shares with cosplay friends but also with family, people not into your hobby. Some things are better for that audience versus cosplay as a more professional audience focused on the projects we’re working on and the cons we’re working.”
This more professional- or hobby-focused group, Rachel says, is where she directs podcasts, her nooga.com column and so on. These venues are seen by more people she may not know personally: 325 cosplay page followers, 100 podcast followers, 100 hits a month on her fandom page at nooga.com.
“I look at it as a brand versus Facebook as being more personal in nature…my Facebook page is everything: cosplay, how I’m feeling, talking about my husband and parents. Those are things I might not be comfortable sharing with strangers.”
This approach resembles what marketers call “segmentation”: dividing an audience or potential audience into groups based on interest or demographics. In this case, segmentation protects the more personal information about Rachel from curious eyes in the fandom or the wider world; it also preserves emotional boundaries. In that way, it’s similar to how friendships have always, organically developed, just made explicit.
“You’re thinking of your friends as audiences?” I ask, just to confirm.
“In a way,” Rachel says. “There is crossover in fandom. Then they have mutual friends who try to add me [as Facebook friends]. Those I have added are those I actually trust, whereas others I don’t know, though maybe one day I will. For now, I have 457 friends on Facebook — a lot of people to have in a trusted circle.”
It’s always a delicate balancing act; one every blogger, cosplayer, or other online citizen will solve differently.
“When showing different aspects of my life, I want to feel comfortable; I don’t want to create filters,” says Rachel. “I want to say what I want to say one time to one audience, so I only add people I feel would fit in that audience.”
Online, of course, your audience is more than your consumers, and you are more than your brand, even in the most “branded” of settings. A better term may be “interlocutors,” emphasizing mutuality, although the danger is precisely in those audience members who remain anonymous or whose motives are obscured.
Gordon’s online self is very different: a few professional publications, a LinkedIn page, a Facebook entry so slim it’s likely been created just to convince HR managers he isn’t a psycho … like people used to have a church membership for respectability, perhaps. So I imagine that, like a true information security professional, he’ll be the “Czar of No” when it comes to the online doings of us randomly creative folk.
In fact, I’m wrong. He and Rachel are surprisingly on the same page: think through what you want to say, understand the risks, and then, if you have the courage, say it.
Sharing can hurt. Rachel’s xoJane essay about her surgery and recovery, for instance, received numerous unpleasant comments of the “buck up and stop whining” variety, though it was shared widely. The emotional risks are part of the security equation, Gordon says.
“To me there is no difference [between emotional and a practical risk],” he says. “If you are compromised and have an emotional attack from a person, it’s like asking whether it came from an analog or digital source. It’s still the same; the effect and eventual outcome are the same. The far-reaching effects may be different, but it is still the same attack.”
So how do you protect your feelings and your reputation? The solution combines old-fashioned values and contemporary smarts, my experts tell me.
Take your time.
Angry or drunk? Wait until tomorrow to go online. Please. “If you have 24 hours to calm down and think before you post, most of the inflammatory stuff won’t be there,” Gordon says.
“Having your family members on your Facebook feed keeps you honest,” Rachel says.
“Don’t post anything you can’t justify to your mother,” Gordon agrees. He adds, “Don’t put anything online you wouldn’t want to justify on the six o’clock news.”
Think about your brand (or, if you prefer, your ethos).
For instance, Rachel carefully prunes her tags in photographs. Part is a very human vanity, she says, part is common sense.
“Everybody knows everyone drinks or goes on vacation, but you don’t have to show every minute of every day,” she explains. “I show people snapshots of what’s going on my my life, versus whole chapters and an index and footnotes! I am very particular.”
But still, take the risks you have to take.
Writing about a tumor took courage…partly in processing the experience, partly in sharing it.
Rachel says: “I might write an emotional piece about my health but I don’t post my MRIs. That doesn’t help anyone understand anyway. From an artistic perspective I wanted to write about how I felt during treatment. I hadn’t thought about my feelings and that’s what made a difference.”
“The difference is that this is a choice and a premeditated effort on your part,” Gordon observes. “It’s a decision to present that material for your own personal reasons.”
In the end, Rachel says, sharing may take courage, but it’s worth it. She remembers when xoJane was the Sassy of the 90s and she wanted to share her story with that audience, in that namespace.
“I was a little scared to put it out there, but I felt like it was the right place, and that gave me a feeling of peace.”