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Keeping Secrets in the Age of the Internet

“There is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.”
-George Eliot, Felix Holt, The Radical 1866

The Internet is changing the way we view our private lives. Keeping secrets online isn’t all that relevant anymore, as clandestine facts no longer deemed worthy of concealment are posted for everyone to see. Disregarding the shock and awe visited upon us by any number of exhibitionist young Facebookers, we must agree that our own adult sensitivity to what is considered private is narrowing. Our love of miniature bonsai rose gardening or our pet peeve of all things yellow are now innocuous enough to post. “What’s the harm?” we think. “I may benefit from finding community,” we hope.

“You’re not crazy.  There are like-minded people out there.   You just have to find them.    For me … I found my people online.” –Sarah Glassmeyer


We post our best pics, our library book check-outs and our wandering check-ins in hopes one of “our people” will find us. We post for validation. We post to make our friends laugh. We post exercise our self-esteem muscles: “This is me. Like it or not.”

But this seemingly harmless sharing of our less-intimate secrets in hopes we will find these boosts and connections isn’t so harmless.

I’m in the process of collecting images for an inspiration board project. There are many sites like Pinterest and Tumblr where I could collect these images online, but I’m choosing to keep the images in a folder on my machine. I know this is “risky”, i.e., no online back-up. But curating the images in a semi-private place doesn’t appeal to me. (Side note: don’t think any place on-line is private. Even pay-to-use site dropbox has been accused of reading and selling their users’ secrets).  If I did post the images online, comments would surely come, and I’m not looking for love. And I’m sure as hell not looking for hate.

This board project is to chronicle my inspiration; it is not for markers to chronicle my hopes and desires. Enough of my “secrets” are online that any marketer with half a brain could construct my complete stereotyped profile to sell to brands interested in my business. It’s already happened. A lot. It’s as if there is a pack of wild marketing dogs constantly nipping at my heels. What does this mean, practically, for me? It means I get more fleas, i.e., more spam and junk mail, more Twitter direct messages, more offensive Facebook ads, more ridiculous type-ahead suggestions on search, more pop-ups, more people coming up to me at events and making some obscure reference to a personal fact about me. Sharing on the Internet’s worst case scenario would be a stranger showing up at my door uninvited and unforewarned expecting to spend time together (this actually happened to me via IRC in 1989).

With every piece of information I share online, I get more eyes on my life. More dogs sniffing my trail. As I said to the pushy liquor store owner in a vacation town who wanted me to sign up for his frequent buyer list: “I like to keep things simple.” I don’t sign up for frequent buyer lists to stores where I will visit once a year (or once in a lifetime for that particular one). Adding details online is akin to signing up for store club cards. A Yellow-Hater store, a mini-rose bush shop, a Star Trek Conventioneer newsletter. We can refuse these lists easily, yet we can’t see the connection between posting a tiny little secret and the increase in subject-related ads or other invasions of our privacy.

Alarmism about our new lives online isn’t my goal for this post. It’s OK that little tidbits of information once kept secret are not thought as precious as they once were. The pundits yammer on about the assaults on our privacy, but the fact of the matter is that plenty o’ people are giving up smidgens of their privacy each day, considering tiny tidbits a small price to pay to be able to connect with like-minded souls online. I do, however, want to point out that we have yet to fully rub the dark,rabid underbelly of sharing online. Today it is spam based on your general personality profile. Tomorrow it is a specifically-targeted pop-up ad that loudly announces your healthcare issues to your co-workers.

If one follows this argument through, one will end up at a socio-economic class issue. But it’s the same class issue of the ages: rich people can afford to keep things private. In the past, the rich paid for custom services and hired only the most discrete of white and blue collar laborers, who acted as guard dogs for their wealth, health and privacy. Those custom services come now in the form private server administrators and premium software engineers. Just as the rich shop at elite stores and eat at expensive restaurants, they will demand “above the cloud” computing that keeps their information under exclusive lock and key. I’m not endorsing or rejecting this attitude (because, of course, I don’t want to give the marketers any clues 🙂 ), I’m merely noting it. If you are looking for a start-up idea, you should start building out server racks and hire an electronic security ace (or 2 — dozen). A wealthy cohort who will pay handsomely for you to safeguard their secrets and give their spoiled teenage sons a place to host naked pics of the townie girls online is out there and waiting for you.

The capitalist system has not changed. The “freedom” of the Internet is not a freedom at all. Personally, I’m keeping my secret inspirations secret; these images are not portraying seemingly useless facts about me, like where I ate dinner or if I liked jumprope as a kid; these images are portraying my very deep and distinct desires. My dreams. The Internet is the bed of the market; I need not lie down with dogs.

-Christine Cavalier

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mari Adkins 9 August 2011, 1:04 pm

    there are things i just refuse to post. these things have caused me grief in real life, so why would i share online? that’s just asking for drama and heartache. i refuse to go there.

    • PurpleCar 9 August 2011, 2:03 pm


      I agree. And you are one of those people who create this illusion that you are sharing everything, that all of you is out there. But it isn’t. My friend @Cecilyk is like that. She shares a lot but not everything. It’s a good reminder that people are not always what they seem, and there is most definitely more to them than what you can find out online.