When You're Online Even When You're Not Online

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If you never really took two seconds to think about privacy and what all of our lives now look like because of these online channels and platforms, here’s a fictional story that may ring true for you…

Warren is the Vice President of marketing for a major corporation. He never cared much for online social networks. He joined Facebook to follow his kids, and LinkedIn because someone who worked on his team told him he should – at the very least – have his profile posted there. For the most part, he ignores the invitations, pokes and questions. For his professional development he recognizes the power in these channels, and is well-aware of their capabilities and how it is evolving his day-to-day business. That being said, he still doesn’t get why everybody is so crazy over Twitter, even though a growing component of his business line is engaged in some level of customer care using Twitter. Warren would prefer that his professional (and private) life have limited exposure online.

You have to believe that most people are like this. You also have to believe that things are changing too fast for anyone to control the content that is out there and being published online.

It’s 4:00 pm on a Tuesday, and Warren gets a call from an old college friend who happens to be in town with a set of great seats to the baseball game. Warren had already committed to another business function, but figured there would be no harm in blowing it off to hang with an old friend. On the way to his seats, he runs into a client and they have a casual chat. The next day at work, Warren’s boss comes into his office and asks how he is feeling. Before Warren can respond, his boss asks, "how was the baseball game?"

Without thinking he was doing anything wrong, Warren’s client tweeted about how happy he was to run into Warren at the baseball game.

These types of incidents are happening more and more with every passing day and as these platforms become more ubiquitous and easier to use. The point of this Blog post was to highlight that while we’re all paying attention to what we post (and how we post it), we can’t control what others are doing. We all can’t walk around with signs around our necks saying, "this in-person experience is not for Blogs, Facebook or Twitter unless we both agree otherwise." And, as funny as that may sound, we are getting closer to a point in time, where everything that we do in public is going to be recorded and published. We might be needing those signs sooner than we think.

Privacy is scary when you can’t control your own online persona.

Whether it’s skipping work to grab a flick with friends, or being seen at a party when you told people you would be somewhere else, all of us are going to have to be more self-aware of this shift and change. We’re all getting to the point where there may need to be some kind of law or agreement as to what, exactly, is publishable about our lives. For more on this, just take a read through some of the sentiments about Google Maps and their plans for street views.

Privacy has always been a huge concern to Marketers and people publishing content online. There may be a bigger question around what we can all do in a world where even if you’re not active and online, everything you are doing is online and highly searchable through the stories and publishing of others.

Does that scare you?


  1. Great post, as always Mitch.
    I think that now, more than ever, the need to manage one’s professional life effectively must always be top-of-mind – especially in this age of “personal branding”.
    So one has to ensure that lines are drawn when it comes to using soccial media. As I’ve said before, these platforms are not simply “fire and forget”.
    Information may be currency but privacy is the premium on the exchange. We need to understand the value of privacy and how to enforce it. Lock down your profiles, be aware of who’s in whose network and above all be honest because “that means never having to remember what you said.”
    That last point is of extreme importance because we can only control the things we can control.
    Social media may set a new standard in transparency and accountability and until people realise that the onus is on them to maintain their own status quo, we’re gonna have more stories like Warren’s.

  2. The thing is, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as privacy on the Web when you’re using social media today. You have to become your own personal brand’s “spokesperson”. That means creating a social media persona that’s not 100% yourself, and it’s certainly not 100% open and transparent.
    For example, you and I have a family and kids we adore but we rarely talk about them online, in our blogs and in social media. Why? Because it’s private. And until we can be guaranteed that this shared information will only be available/accessible by truly our closest network of family/friends, we won’t share much more about them.

  3. Great post as usual Mitch! I think you cannot manage change, you can just embrace it. I seriously doubt that social media can ever be regulated efficiently to prevent such “leaks” of privacy. And I agree with Seth Godin (in his book Small is the New Big), that it might be a good thing as it will force more integrity onto most people.

  4. Hey Mitch, great storytelling – to make a great point.
    The proceeding comments are bang-on. With the EU directive that the ISPs & Mobile Telcos must capture who we interact with coming into effect yesterday (not sure if there’s anything similar in North America?), I think this topic will be bumped up by the *traditional* media really soon (especially if one of them is the Warren in your story!).
    For me, leaving aside the government snooping, the power of social media to encourage (force?) personal integrity and accountability is vital.
    I hope it will reverse the “laws of power” that undermine our integrity and perhaps, just maybe see us respect each other more.
    Okay, perhaps I’m hinting that social media might lead to world peace and we all know that’s not the case, but there’s maybe a lesson – “stop lying to yourself and each other, you can be sure your sins will find you out”!

  5. Honestly, I’m not scared at all. This reminds me of a true story about the guy who lied to his girlfriend about going out after church.
    He said he was going home but he went to the bar. Someone took his pic, tagged him and his girlfriend saw it before he could untag himself from Facebook. The article was from one of Ryerson’s papers & is along the same theme of this post. Be careful what you say or do… someone may be watching.

  6. Remember the main point of this Blog post: it’s not about people like us using these channels and platforms. This “story” is about the people who are NOT using them, and how they are still in the public zeitgeist as others are Tweeting, Facebooking, publishing pictures and more about them… without them doing anything at all
    Bigger ramifications when you really think about it.

  7. One of the major traits ‘we’ are demanding from brands and media is truth and transparency… is it too much to ask that of each other also?
    Brands really do need to grasp that they live in social online spaces, even if they’re not proactive in being there. As Tom Chandler says “Brand control online is something of an illusion”. They need to know how facilitate it and get a message across; both when it’s going well and when it’s going wrong.
    …and I guess we users need to manage our personal ‘brand’ too. Which gets easier the more honest we are.

  8. Mitch, were you aware that Privacy Awareness Week is coming up (3-9 May 2009)?
    “The Week will see a variety of programs and initiatives hosted by public and private sector organisations from across the Asia-Pacific region [including Canada] to promote awareness of privacy rights and responsibilities.”
    I’ve got a guest post from David Taylor, director, privacy awareness, Office of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner cheduled on PR Conversations (“Dispatch from Oz: Think privacy isn’t important? Aren’t you glad this loo isn’t made of glass?”) to coincide with that week.
    One of the questions David is asking of PRC readers:
    What would make you pause and think twice about your online privacy? For example, are you willing to trade your privacy for online social connections?
    (I’m going to point him to your post and resulting comments as a resource.)

  9. Great post.
    Will public relations be something that everyone will have to consider in day to day living?

  10. Excellent post, Mitch. To answer your question … no, it doesn’t scare me. I have worked online for a long time now, and — as a former journalist — have always gone by the old cliche that whatever I write or do online may one day be on the front page of a national newspaper.
    So, I’m very conscientious of how I conduct myself. BUT, there have been occasions where friends have posted items about me that might have been bad timing(!), so I just asked for them to be deleted.
    It will still happen though, that’s the way it goes. I use social media alerting tools for my own name, blog and website, so always (90% maybe!) know if I’m being mentioned somewhere.
    This is the way it is going to go, fortunately or unfortunately — depending on how private a person you are.
    Anyway, will RT this, worth a read for my contacts.

  11. I am a fairly private person, and was always one of those ‘not using’ social media. And although I never ran into a situation quite as bad as Warren’s, it did happen that someone in my workplace made comments about a photo of me in a risqué Halloween costume that a friend had posted on Facebook, before I had even joined the social network. And I have to say, it really freaked me out. Growing up, my father always said “never do anything you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of the Gazette”. Back then, it was theoretical – chances are you wouldn’t end up in the Gazette, no matter how inappropriate your Halloween costume was – but today, it’s reality. Everything goes on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Everything is for public consumption. For me, it was an opportunity to look at my life and decide whether I was comfortable enough with my behaviour to let it be posted, and to hell with anyone who disapproves, or if it made me feel exposed… In which case, perhaps it was my behaviour that was the problem, and not the Facebook posting. In any case, this was great food for thought – thanks!

  12. Agree with this post. And the other side of it is that people are going to have to start being more accepting of personal life details. Employers, for example, who have increasing access to their employees’ private lives through channels such as Facebook, will need to understand that yes, their employees have private lives and on occasion, an embarrassing photo of that employee might show up on Facebook, and that this should not be grounds for firing or reprimand.
    Obviously this varies depending on the industry, and some industries are slower than others to catch on. But with the sheer volume of content about there on everyone, it’s inevitable that every employee – or political candidate, or public figure – will have a digital footprint out there, and there must be some sort of biblical analogy in there about casting the first stone and all of that, no?

  13. Great post as always Mitch!
    I think It goes right to the point that everybody needs to act with integrity and authenticity on and off line. Even if you are not a big SM user you have to acknowledge that to some extent you are.
    More and more we need to be clear, transparent and act consistently in everything we do. Because if we are not or if we are trying to hide something, some one will bring it out to life for you.
    This reminds me what happened to me on a very recent business trip: I went to Monterrey to deliver a keynote and scheduled some time afterwards to meet a web design grad student I’ve been helping with her (this is important for point I’m making, it was a SHE) thesis, to record a podcast with her and her partner.
    She left me very innocent, well intended, yet very incomplete note on my FB wall saying, I quote: “Meet you in your hotel at 7 pm”
    Suffice to say that half an hour later my wife saw my FB wall!!
    Lucky for my I have a very goog open communication with my wife and cleared up everything immediately…but can you imagine the potential trouble I was in?!
    Thanks Mitch and keep sharing!

  14. Mitch,
    I really enjoyed this post because I think you’ve really effectively described what makes me so uncomfortable sometimes with social-media.
    I wrote a blog post recently about privacy and social networks, and one of the commenters nailed one point – that privacy concerns have “snuck up” on users who quickly adopted new technologies based upon convenience. He writes, “I think these privacy issues really snuck up on people. We all got used to email, probably with a false sense of privacy. But services like Gmail just make the lack of privacy with email more plain. When you sent an email using AOL or some other service, it was easy to overlook the fact that your words were being passed through many servers and could easily be seen by other people (assuming people cared enough to hack it). Now, seeing ads along side your email makes it much more obvious that your email is not as much ‘yours’ as you thought.” Now, he’s using email as an example, but I think the point carries over.
    In another post (http://www.newfangled.com/check_your_social_network_privacy_settings) I mentioned an article written by a university educator who expressed how social media has introduced all kinds of difficulty into his and his colleaugues’ lives.
    I do agree with @Jean-Michel, though. We have to go with it for now. If regulation is going to happen, it will have to be incremental.

  15. Mitch:
    I think this topic also ties into the “privacy” distinctions between Facebook and Twitter.
    With Facebook, there is some sense of privacy, as the social network you revolve in requires some level of opt-in that controls the extent to which information is dispersed and available. That said, the notion of privacy, even in Facebook, shouldn’t provide a false sense of security.
    With Twitter, it’s simply wide-open in the “public domain,” so to speak – searchable, indexable…
    Granted, neither one stops connected people from sharing potentially damning info about a non-connected entity – it’s just that, IMO, the potential for “damage” is somewhat greater in the Twittersphere

  16. While I agree with the comments about the importance of being honest, I think it’s important to consider that “white lies” are a reality in negotiating social relationships: when one person tells another person they are “busy” or “have plans”, social graces would dictate that they don’t tell that person “I just really would prefer to go to this party that you were not invited to.”
    Yet Facebook often does this for you indirectly and without your consent.

  17. Hey Mitch! Great post, with several insightful comments.
    Those of us active across several social media channels forget that the majority of people have a more distant relationship with these tools. We tend to make assumptions about the privacy preferences of our colleagues and family members.
    Your story points to an unintended and relatively harmless consequence of this difference in attitude.
    While social media advocates would like to encourage a transparent society, united through real-time updates and instant communications, it’s important that people realize that tweets, Facebook postings, blog comments and SMS messages are increasingly being introduced as evidence in civil and criminal cases – and are helping to decide the outcome of those cases.
    Canadian courts – and others – are ruling that even protected updates aren’t really private if they have been shared with several hundred “friends.”
    We may find activity on social media networks settling mid-way been transparency and obscurity: a place where users are more aware of how to tweak the privacy settings of the tools they use, and more considerate of the information they choose to share widely.

  18. Your example’s all about honesty, Warren has a business function in the evening that he decides he will skip out on because his college friend is in town but instead of being honest about it and telling people who may expect him to be there he just plays hookey. He’s made the value judgement that he’d rather go to the game than the business function.
    What if he’d said to his boss: ‘I’m really sorry, a college friend I’ve not seen in years is in town this evening and would be very disappointed if I couldn’t meet up with him this evening’? If his boss says ‘no you have to go to the biz thing’ then his boss is an insensitive ass and he should walk anyway. If not, then he goes to the game and the next morning he should call the people he wanted to hook up with, ask them how the biz pow-wow was, and apologise for his absence, invite them to lunch and make the most of the situation.
    The example given could have happened in the 50s or earlier – the truth will out. Social media should simply serve to make us more honest. I’m all for walled gardens of privacy in certain areas (my facebook profile is friends, family & very close colleagues only, for example) but if you’re going to succeeed in this hyper-connected world then you’ve got to be throwing straight arrows.

  19. We’re entering an era where it doesn’t make sense to lie. It’s kinda beautiful, isn’t it?
    Avoiding power-over relationships that scare you into wanting to lie is the next big thing. You heard it here first!

  20. Modern communication and corollaries such as privacy concerns are issues too important to be handled by bureaucrats alone.
    Everybody (specially the users) should participate on defining how we should legislate on these matters.
    Adopting innovation requires new ways of thinking our every day lives; it has always been like this.
    On social networks follow this golden rule though: before posting or uploading anything ask yourself what my boss, my mother or my wife will think of this!

  21. Mitch – thanks for the (gentle) reminder of your point ;->
    I was catching up on some of Tom Peter’s writings and was struck by his admition that when writing In Search of Excellent, he and Bob “could have written more about integrity and character than we did”.
    I was reminded of your thoughts here and the perhaps, just maybe, the crowd is going to demand more transarency than ever – this may lead to the kind of leadership that TP and others encourage (preach?).
    The full quote is worth sharing, imho:
    “Mea culpa: Bob and I could have written more about integrity and character than we did. My lame excuse is that our parents did a pretty good job, and we took it for granted. My mea culpa is that we should have known better and sounded off—it might not have helped, but it wouldn’t have hurt. B-schools deafening silence on this issue, until long after the cat had escaped the bag, is shameful at the very least—a criminal act in its own way.”

  22. Just to follow up on this there an interesting article in today’s NYTimes called “Lost in the Real World, Found via Cyberspace”* that illustrates the our online presence…
    …but of more relevance, to this post, is the recounted tail of the lost camera. Some its photos were posted on Flickr and via other online networks a team of ad-hoc detectives were mobilised. Together they identified the locations and features of the photographs (including one of them driving to find the house in one of the photos, and another getting the phone number of the landlord)… and in the end locating the original owners of the camera (who had no personal public online i.d. of their own).
    *I won’t include the NYTimes link as it may cause this comment to be rejected.

  23. Great story. More and more of these stories are becoming common place. People need to realize that it’s impossible to keep online life and real life separate.

  24. Great post. We need to understand that by signing up for the Facebooks and Twitters that we are in a way making ourselves public figures.

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