It is naive to think our online lives are not connected to real-life

There seems to be a strange disconnect between our online and offline lives. Different rules, norms and values seem to apply. It is as if our online personality is not connected to our real life. We act differently and feel a sense of freedom online that seems to compensate for the restrains we might feel in real life. We are all actors in this massive online play and it allows us to do things we wouldn’t consider doing in real life.


We wouldn’t allow anyone, not even the landlord you rent a house from, to put web cams in our houses and record every conversation inside the house “to make our experience better”. Yet we throw our privacy principles over board when we get online and join sites like Facebook or MySpace.

We wouldn’t show a stranger arriving at our doorstep our family photo album. Yet we publish and annotate these same photos online so that the whole world can view them.

We protect our children against danger in the real world. We supervise their first steps into the world.  We don’t let them talk or walk with strangers. We don’t let them bully others. Yet we let them get online unsupervised and unprotected, explore the web and social networking.

We do not divulge private matters concerning illness, lost jobs, winning the lottery, fights, love, etc. to strangers we bump into on the street, yet we disclose all of this online in social networks where half of the time we don’t even know who is listening in.

We wouldn’t tell complete strangers where exactly we live, when we are going on holiday or business trips (what if they rob us), yet you can find all of that information, and more, online.

In real life we have opinions, but we do not disclose these opinions everywhere. We might even be inhibited to do so as it might turn on you at some point in time.  Online we join every conversation and start opinionating immediately. And we forget it gets recorded and will never disappear again.

The people we call friends in the real world is limited. A friend is something different from an aqcuaintance. Online we have thousands of friends. You may argue these are not your real friends, but why then do we disclose so much about ourselves to these ‘friends’? Why do we spend so much time engaging with people we really don’t know?

We do not tell anyone about our bank accounts, our passport numbers, social security numbers or birth dates unless there is a real need to do so. Yet online we sign up for any service that pops up and disclose happily our e-mail addresses, passwords, birth dates etc. In most cases these turn out to be the exact same pieces of information we use for online banking and financial transactions. Every once in a while we get scared of phishing, but soon enough we forget about it again.

We don’t trust new insurance, banking, or telephone companies that tell us we can use a service for free if we allow them access to our private information, and listen in on our conversations.  Yet online we let social networks have access not only to our own profiles, our annotated baby pictures, our families and friends, but also to our interactions with all of them.  We allow all of that private data to be exploited commercially.

We protect our privacy and family in real life, yet we let social networks protect our privacy online? Who protects us then from them?

I could probably extend this list further and think of more disconnects between real life and online behavior. But the real question is, do we care enough about it to actually deal with it? The ability to connect and interact with anyone online has brought us a lot of freedom. It has many positive aspects to it. It has freed us from many real-life constraints. If you can afford to be part of this online experience you will find that it tends to level things. Everyone can be a pop star.

But I would like to urge you to think about this for a minute. As real-life and online behavior become more and more connected, entangled, you will find that it is less easy to separate them. Online and offline become the same life. While we see our online behavior as play now I doubt it will still be play in a few years. And yet we act as if these worlds are not connected. We disclose almost anything about ourselves online and do not think or understand the possible consequences in real-life. With viruses spreading across the world and a network of computers that spans the entire planet harm can be done in a split second. Where wars are still fought on the ground, they will also move into cyberspace. Where commercial exploitation of your private data now leads to display ads you can safely ignore, it might lead to less harmless forms of commercial activity in the future. Where your next job interview might now depend on your previously achieved results. In the near future it will depend on what a Google search result will reveal about you.

Am I being too negative about this? Maybe, considering current behavior in social media my views aren’t exactly popular. But I also firmly believe that we are formed and shaped by our own actions. My advice would be that you start acting online like you would do in real-life. Thinking these worlds are disconnected is naive.


About vanelsas

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9 Responses to It is naive to think our online lives are not connected to real-life

  1. Ruud Hein says:

    It’s probable though that future generations will change their offline behavior along the same lines. Just because you and I don’t XYZ doesn’t mean the next person or generation won’t.

    In essence what you’re talking about that way is a cultural difference where the online world is a culture by itself. In that culture the behavior you describe is acceptable, often encouraged.

    Take the private matters you mention, for example. In many European countries income is a private matter. It’s not correct to ask about someone’s salary and talking about it can be considered as somewhat rude behavior. Yet in North America communication around the same matter is much more acceptable.

    What is remarkable then is that we can so easily and so completely be part of two cultures. In the past we could only belong to one dominant culture and various subcultures; with the online experience it is as if there is a second dominant culture we can be part of, one with its own subcultures even.

    Perhaps in this culture we feel less threatened because we don’t see it. It’s not even remotely scary the way urban legends can be, the way the <1% chance scary crimes that can happen to us can be. So someone has my birthday — so what?

    Thinking out loud: it’s the trickle. That’s the problem. Rob someone of a substantial amount of money and it matters; skim 10 cents of that same person every week and they can’t be bothered.

  2. @Ruud your observation about 2 cultures may be right. At the same time I feel most users do not understand the implications of sharing private data online. Birth days as an example are a key identification ingredient in the US, even more important than in Europe. I can combine a birth date with a maiden name, current address, college studied at etc etc. The options for identity fraud are endless. And we provide all these snippets of information without understanding the implications if someone creates an overall picture.
    We should be bothered imo, but I guess we need to burn our hands before we “get it”.

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  4. Thabo says:

    While I understand the potential for fraud to occur, I do believe the concerns are overblown.
    Privacy is manageable. I use two social websites – one anonymously and one with my full details.
    I manage the friends list differently (on one over 1000 on the other 7), hence my behaviour is entirely different depending on the site.
    The situation is evolving and I think we focus as usual on the most glaring oddities. The vast majority of users are wiser than we think.

  5. Thabo, I would argue differently and say that the vast majority of people do not have a clue what online privacy really is. Saying I protect my online privacy because I have restrictions set on my Facebook account is the perfect example of people not getting this. No one protects you from Facebook and their 3rd party developers that leverage your data.

    Here is an interesting article just published on online privacy:

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