Nope, this isn’t an article about how to meet people online—I haven’t noticed anyone having a problem with that. It is about what information you make available to people you meet online.
The internet gives us such incredible opportunities to meet others who share our interests, no matter how narrow they may seem. I feel certain that somewhere out there is a mailing list out there for left-handed redheads who love haggis, only read Victorian novels and want to meet others like themselves. Most of us can quickly find people who share our interests online, whatever they are. And in over ten years of experience with online interaction, I’ve found that people tend to get close very quickly in this kind of medium and tell each other things they wouldn’t tell their next door neighbors. It’s very easy to fall into a false sense of trust and intimacy, because you’re talking more than you would with someone you just across the back fence every day or two or run into at church on Sundays. To be honest, I don’t think it’s necessarily any more dangerous to meet people via the internet than to meet someone in a bar.
Yes, you probably find yourself feeling very close to someone with whom you’ve chatted a lot very quickly in contrast to how quickly things would move offline. The illusion of instant intimacy is an illusion. You don’t know how this person dresses or smells, how he keeps house, how well she takes care of her children, how he or she treats others in "real life" as you would by observing interactions offline; you don’t know if he or she is normally punctual or has good table manners or cuts people off in traffic. You don’t know if she flies into a rage because the fast food clerk got her order wrong, or if he takes a swing at somebody who is being too loud while he’s trying to watch a movie. You really don’t know this person that well at all.
It is much easier for someone to misrepresent themselves to you online. Yes, you might think you’ve seen a picture of him or her—how do you know that it truly was his or her picture, or that it’s current, or that it hasn’t been manipulated in some way? It’s also very easy for someone to lie about profession, marital or economic status, etc. Yes, it’s pretty easy to do that in person, as well—but this text-based medium makes it a bit easier to maintain the facade for longer periods of time. Remember—there are plenty of people on the net pretending to be someone of the opposite sex! Take everything with at least a grain of salt—and always remember that there is absolutely no way to "take back" information you’ve given to someone or made available online if you later find that you’ve been too open. The time to be cautious is before you have cause to regret what you’ve told someone—not after you have some wacko calling your home or office every few minutes trying to get you to give him a job, marry her, or join his cult.
Is there an actual need for you to use your real name, or anything close to your real name, while online? Yes, you probably need to use a real name when you’re interacting on a professional basis, or you won’t have any credibility. And yes, I’m using my real name, because I started using my real name on the net so many years ago that it would be impossible for me to disappear now. But if you’re online for purely personal reasons, don’t use your real name. If you’re online for personal and professional use, consider keeping it in totally separate personas. Do people who know that you do post-sales support for Big Networking Company really need to know that you collect radio-controlled cars and like to grow tomatoes in your spare time? Probably not. So if you’re John Smith in your professional persona and Terry Johnson in your personal persona, it isn’t going to hurt anyone. Or you might want to use a name that’s obviously a handle for the personal stuff—maybe you’re RCJuicyTomatoes or something like that. Because I promise you that if someone knows your real name, they can find out something else about you unless your name is as common as John Smith and you live in a huge place like New York City.
Don’t use your work email address for personal interactions online. Period. Ever. It gives out too much information about you. Don’t tell your online contacts where you work. Tell them what kind of work you do, let them know you work for a software company in the telecom field or in the distribution warehouse of a major grocery store chain—but they don’t need to know where precisely where and for whom you work. Trust me here.
Do not use your employer’s internet connection to post or email anything from your personal persona—it’s too easy to trace where you work, even if you think you’re anonymous. 99.9% of the time, your IP address will show up in the headers of your messages, and it will take about 37 seconds for anybody with a lick of sense to know that you work in the Atlanta office of Widgets R Us.
You do not need to tell online acquaintances that you live in Podunk, Somestate—say you live in Somestate, or northern Somestate, or not far from the nearest metropolitan area if you must.
You also don’t need to say that your little Suzy goes to school at Tiny Elementary School, or that Jeremy is in Tiger Scout Troop XXXX. Say your kids are in scouting or in the 2nd grade or whatever—that’s plenty of information. You don’t need to say that you attend Third Millenialist Apostolic Church or are a member of the Sacred RavenMoonWolf Coven, either. You’re Wiccan or Asatru or Methodist—fine. That’s plenty for most people to know.
Don’t give out your home address. Don’t make it easy for anyone to find your home address. If you must give someone an address in the real world, use a drop box at the post office or Mailboxes Etc. or a similar place.
I don’t care how marvelous he or she seems—don’t give him or her your work, home, cell phone or pager number for a while. There are plenty of places where you can get a free phone number—like EFax or OneBox are just two of them—to give to people without any real risk. Stick to that until you’ve known this person offline for a month or two, at least. When he calls the number, he’ll get a voice mail greeting and can leave a message. You’ll be notified that you have a message and can listen to it, then call him back. I’d suggest calling back with caller ID block in place so that he cannot get your phone number from caller ID (that would ruin the whole point of the other phone number, wouldn’t it?). (I’m assuming you have an unlisted, unpublished phone number anyway, right? Hmm—maybe you should go think about privacy in general then. Another day, another article.)
Do not put your home or work address or phone numbers into your profile information at sites like EBay—you do know that anyone with an EBay account can request that information from their system and get it, whether you’ve entered into a transaction with that person or not, right? That bit of information was supposedly in the fine print of the agreement you made when you signed up for their service.
Originally published December 12, 2000