I published my first Web site in 1995, which makes me kind of an Internet longtimer. I coded the HTML by hand in Notepad and used an FTP client to upload the pages to the Web space that came with my dial-up Internet service. How quaint.
Typical of the time, I had published a little personal site, and one of its pages gave my family’s names and the city in which we lived. My wife wasn’t comfortable placing that information on the Internet where the whole world could find it, and asked me to take that page down. I didn’t understand her worry. I argued that it was like standing on any Manhattan street corner and saying those things out loud – passersby could hear, but none of them would care! My wife’s counter-argument was that if nobody would care, then why have a Web page in the first place? Her argument was lost on me at the time, but I took the offending page down just the same.
I didn’t worry about my privacy on the Internet. I seldom encountered anybody I knew. And while my name was well recognized in a few little corners of the Net, nobody in those places knew the real-life me. I felt inconspicuous, almost anonymous, in a vast ocean of voices. I felt pretty free to be open about myself, and I really enjoyed that freedom. I’ve even benefited from it as I worked through some tough times in my life, having laid a lot bare in some support forums from which I got some very helpful feedback. With a little determination, someone could find what I wrote. I’m very easy to find on the Internet, and with a little Googling it’s easy to link my real name to my usual forum username. But I shrugged it off, thinking that anyone that determined to find dirt on me probably needed professional help.
My attitude started to change when I started this blog three years ago. I was recently divorced and still working through the fallout. I felt considerable temptation to vent anger and pain, but I didn’t want to use this blog to wallow in self-pity. I purposed to write about good things in my life. Sure, I’ve told some stories here about challenges I’ve faced. But attaching my name to this blog (see it up there in the URL?) drove me to think and write about how I grew through the adversity. It’s not that I didn’t have pain to process, but that I chose to process it in private with friends and family who know me well. Here, I want to present the results of that processing. Not only does it affirm for me the lessons I had learned, but it resolves a worry: What if my mom found my blog? A co-worker? My ex?
But then came Facebook, and it has changed everything. Truly, it has shrunk the Internet. Thanks to Facebook, I now feel very conspicuous online.
I had tried other social networking sites but didn’t enjoy them and didn’t stick around. I joined Friendster when it was new (2003!), but gave up when few of my friends would try it. I signed up for MySpace next, but I never liked its gaudy look and low-rent feel. I also got bloody tired of the come-ons from women I’d never met. I liked Facebook from the first because it was clean and simple, and because most of my closest friends were there. I enjoyed this new way of keeping up with them, one status update at a time.
While my friend list was so limited, my status updates were pretty frank. But then people I’ve known at every phase of my life started to find me and wanted to connect. On the one hand, it’s been great. I have reconnected with people I never thought I’d talk to again, including childhood friends I haven’t seen in 35 years. And I’ve searched out and found a few dear friends with whom I’d lost contact, missed terribly, and feared I might never hear from again. Today, my friend list includes people from every time and place in my life. But my expanded friend list has made me reconsider how open I was being. Do I want an old classmate I knew only well enough to greet in passing to know that my ex and I just had a disagreement over the visitation schedule? Do I want co-workers to know that I came in late today because insomnia kept me up until 3 a.m. and I decided to sleep in? Do I want to comment on politics, knowing that my conservative-leaning remarks will incite my passionately liberal friends? Do I want to say that I went out for a beer with my brother tonight when I know that some at my church find drinking incompatible with a life of faith?
I’m not standing on a random Manhattan street corner anymore. Rather, I’m now in a very small town, with practically everyone I’ve ever known potentially within earshot. And so now I use the same restraint online that I use in real life. I still have the desire to “be real” and connect with others, but increasingly I’m doing it the old-fashioned way, in face-to-face relationships. Online tools such as e-mail, my blog, and Facebook are just means to that end now. It feels like that’s how it should always have been.