I've had a number of interesting conversations today about the picture that the social Internet paints of us. It was suggested to me today that I appear blissfully happy and completely miserable. I'm generally not that concerned about what people think of me, and maybe I should be, but I should go on record as saying that the only time I've really considered myself unhappy was in 2005, when I was going through my divorce, and in 2001, when I got laid-off for the first time. Even with those unpleasant times, I'm well aware of how awesome my life has been.
There is some degree of filtering that goes between real life and the Internet, as there should be. On one hand, you might see hundreds of photos of my kid on Facebook, and people will say things like, "He always looks so happy." Well of course, I don't post the photos of him throwing a fit. OK, well, sometimes I do, but I'm sure my mom doesn't want to see that. Conversely, when something really irritates me, I'm likely to rant about it in a blog post or drive-by status update. If you know me in real life, you know I'm not one to candy-coat what's on my mind. Neither of these scenarios is grounds to declare a well-formed opinion about my life, or anyone else's for that matter.
The funniest thing, if a lesson learned entirely too late, was that a story from my previously analog life makes more sense than ever now. Back in college, a friend of mine had a hot tub. No one knew he had it, and he didn't want people to know. My thought at the time was, "How cool is that? Why would you not want people to know?" It wasn't until after it got out that he explained it. If he had a hot tub, it was implied that he made more money than other people, or had parties of ill repute, or any number of things that would be unreasonable to assume. Sometimes sharing the most innocuous things can have totally unintended outcomes.
I've generally presented myself as WYSIWYG, because the bluntness of that approach means I don't really have to explain where I stand on things. Still, there are a lot of things that I don't share with people in real life, let alone online, so you never get the complete picture. Go through my blog from 2005, and you won't likely find anything about my crumbling marriage.
I suppose I could easily write the incomplete context problem off as everyone else's problem, but it wouldn't help. I try not to assume anything about people based on their online persona, but that doesn't mean others work that way.
What's really important to remember is that online life is surprisingly not as different from offline life as people like to think. You will undoubtedly encounter people at work or school that you think you totally have nailed down, only to find out they're not at all like you thought. Insert book/cover metaphor here. A hundred years from now, anthropologists are going to look back at our time and say, "Humans began to socialize more and more by electronic means, and in their rush to declare it as different, overlooked that the same social contracts applied online."