“You have zero privacy anyway. Just get over it.” – Sun Chairman Scott McNealy 1999
In 1993, the New Yorker published a cartoon by Peter Steiner. Two dogs were sitting in front of a computer workstation. One dog was sitting in a chair typing and the other dog was sitting on the floor. The dog that was typing turned and explained “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
The cartoon quickly became a classic, in part because the dog spoke the truth. In 1993, the Internet was anonymous. Nobody used their real name. Like with the CB radio fad of a generation before, early Internet adopters had handles — only this time around they were called screen names. We weren’t Bob Smith or Nancy Jones. We were Bulldog123 and ByteMe99.
What changed? The Internet evolved from a text-based medium to become a multi-media environment — and we started to shop on the Internet. And the dollars brought marketers. And marketers, who needed to see what we were doing on the Internet so they could market to us more effectively, brought cookies. And although some of made a fuss, most of us accepted their little bits of code, gladly trading privacy for a smoother user experience.
And then the Dot Com bubble burst. Which made us all get real. Literally.
Although the sock puppet from Pets Dot Com was looking for a new job, it was clear that the Internet itself wasn’t hurt. It just wasn’t a place for ByteMe99 anymore. The party was over.
Thankfully, a certain search engine’s growing popularity helped us adjust to using our real names. We even got a new verb out of it – googled. We googled our friends and business contacts and found there were benefits from using your real name. People could find you. You could find them. And then social networking sites came along and boosted the whole thing up a notch.
Today, everyone not only knows you’re a dog on the Internet – they know what breed of dog you are, how old you are, where you live and whether your master is a fan of “Ceasar’s Way” or “It’s Me or the Dog.”
Ok. I’m exaggerating. Maybe.
My point is that as the Internet matured and proved to be more than just an interesting diversion, it also became a public place. And because it’s public, there’s no such thing as privacy.
If you were at a football game and you spotted your boss across the field and didn’t want him to see you, you wouldn’t say “Hey, you can’t look at me because I’m not at work,” would you?
No. That would be ridiculous. Instead, you’d do what any normal person would do in that situation. You’d hide.
I’m not kidding.
How do you hide on the Internet? First, take the time to manage your privacy settings. Use private posts on Twitter. Limit what co-workers and friends of friends can see about you on Facebook. Uncheck the box that says anyone can tag you in photos or write on your wall. And don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.
Or do what we all did back in 1999. Use a screen name for your personal networking. Because there’s no such thing as privacy on the Internet.
Margaret Rouse is a technical writer with more than twenty years experience.