6 Jun 2022

How to have a private life

Previous generations drew a firm line between the public and private spheres. It was understood that, when you were out in society, you were under close scrutiny. Lapses in taste or judgement, a lack of decorum, or transgressions of any kind were noted and commented upon by your contemporaries and your reputation was damaged, sometimes irreparably. Private life was considered sacrosanct, a safe haven where discretion was assured.

In the age of social media and internet surveillance these divisions have become blurred. We post publicly about our most intimate affairs, open ourselves up to 24/7 scrutiny, avidly consume an online diet of scandal, scurrilous lies and defamation that spreads, unchecked and frequently unmoderated, around the world in seconds.

But we must not let ourselves forget that discretion is a great virtue. We all do, say or think things that are not for public consumption and we need to draw the line somewhere. We need to accept that we have a public persona, which is how we project ourselves when we are out in the world (real or digital).  People will judge our public persona and will use it to determine whether we are honest, reliable or employable. We reserve our private persona, with all our insecurities, lapses of judgment and indiscretions, for our friends and family, and it is a mark of respect and trust to do so.

It is a well-known fact that employers, marketers, intelligence agencies and, increasingly, criminals, are mining data about our online lives, tracking our browsing histories, spending patterns and most private communications. No aspect of our online presence is immune from scrutiny. It is therefore imperative, if we want to protect ourselves from fraud, defamation or reputational damage, that we carefully curate our public persona for public consumption.

So, in an increasingly public world, how do we protect our own privacy and respect other people’s?

1.         If you want to post online, share trivial and mundane, rather than sensitive, information. Don’t over-share; although it can be tempting to solicit praise and validation from your online audience, you are trusting them with information that may well come back to haunt you – the online world is a place where revelations can be seriously misinterpreted and discourse can easily turn uninhibited and malign. Restrict your more intimate disclosures to real world communications with close and trusted friends.

2.         Control your audience. You wouldn’t blurt out your deepest secrets to a roomful of strangers in the real world, so don’t do it on the internet. Use privacy settings, monitor your followers, don’t tag people on Facebook.

3.         Consume online information intelligently. That means recognising that a great deal of content that finds its way to the internet is unverified, unchecked and untested. It might be riveting, but it is little more than unfounded rumour and gossip. You will need to dig deeper to test the veracity of much of what you read online.

4.         Think carefully before you disseminate questionable information and be aware that it may well contribute to a dangerous online rumour mill that will do innocent individuals real reputational harm. Bear in mind that seeking redress for lies and calumnies that are spread on the internet is a difficult, and often ineffective, process and the damage that is wrought may well be permanent.


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