How Much Information Should You Share?

There are different circles in all of our lives. We all have our coworkers, our friends, and our relatives, at the very least. That's just the start, of course; most of us further break those groups into sub-divisions: the coworkers we like and hang out with vs. the ones we deal with only as much as necessary, the close friends and the friends we barely still keep in touch with, and those relatives we really like compared to the ones we nod politely at during the holidays and otherwise try to avoid.

With each of these groups of people in our lives, we share some amount of information about ourselves; with very few exceptions, typically the people who are closest to us, there's nobody who knows EVERYTHING about us. Our coworkers know the details of our work and understand our frustration with our boss, our friends know about our romantic troubles (or romantic successes) and personal lives, and our relatives remember all the embarrassing stories about our youth (and if they are members of my family, are among the first to know when there is a new baby on the way, if only because they'd be highly upset with me if I didn't share that information as soon as I knew). Each segment of our lives had its own set of rules and portion of knowledge about us that they were allowed to know, and that was all they had a chance to learn.

Enter the Internet

That is, until the arrival of the Internet. The Internet, and sites like Facebook (and before it, MySpace; although, perhaps I'm dating myself now), have enabled us to share information about ourselves with many more people at once, anyone who has decided to follow us can learn all about anything we decide to share. (And many of us, particularly the younger ones, lack discretion, shall we say, in what they decide to post.)

The Internet has shifted how we share information in other ways, as well. It's now possible, for example, to remain completely or semi-anonymous even as you share more information about yourself than your best friends have ever learned. This leads to some unusual (or at least, unusual prior to the widespread use of the Internet) situations, where you can simultaneously know nearly everything about a person and yet still know nothing for certain. I've shared more about my financial standing on this very blog, for example, than my own wife knows (not that I try to keep anything from her, of course; but every time I start to discuss mutual funds and the difference between a traditional and a Roth IRA, her eyes glaze over and I realize she's a step or two away from complete unconsciousness). Yet, I could pass most of my readers on the street and they wouldn't recognize me. They couldn't even say with absolute certainty that the writer of this blog is a 29 year old male with a degree in biochemistry and an interest in personal finance; it's entirely possible, as far as anyone reading this knows, that ‘Roger' is really a team of trained monkeys typing on computers in between their work on re-writing Hamlet.

My point is not to make you question who (and what) I am, as I do try to be honest when I'm writing, but merely to point out some of the facts of modern life. Information has become THE most important commodity, with sites from Facebook to Google making much of their profits by gathering, organizing, analyzing, and yes, selling the information provided to them. It wouldn't take too much effort on the part of a data miner to link this blog with my personal Facebook account with any number of other sources of information about me, from my high school debate team performance to my dating profiles from my single days, building a more complete set of information about me than anyone, save myself and possibly Sondra, knows about currently.

How Much Information Should You Share?

All of which leads me back to the main point of this article: how much information should you share? And how should you share it to minimize the chance that you could suffer from identity theft or other ill results from personal information falling into the wrong hands? I've already shared some tips on how to avoid identity theft, and most of what I've said applies here as well. For a few more tips on sharing information, make sure that you:

Keep Damaging Information Private: We're all done things in our past we don't want the world to know about. (If by chance you haven't, well, just know that there's a reason college students have gotten a reputation for being wild and crazy outside the classroom.) While it's tempting to hop online and share that information, resist the urge and keep it to yourself. (Now, getting your friends to do the same, that's a tougher challenge…)

Keep Your Social Accounts Separate: It's tempting to link all your social media accounts together, to form one giant social web connecting everyone you know. Don't. Remember back when we talked about the different social circles in everyone's lives? There are some things your personal friends should know that your professional contacts shouldn't, and vice versa. It shouldn't be too hard to have separate accounts (or use separate sites altogether) to connect with your friends, family, and business contacts. (This won't completely prevent someone with the time and desire from putting all the pieces together, but why make things easier on them?)

Keep Some Personal Information Personal: There's much you can share on social networks, from your thoughts and feelings to your fantastic salsa recipe. But there's just as much you shouldn't share; from the obvious (passwords, security questions and answers, that time you and your friends went on a drinking spree and regained consciousness in Argentina) to the less obvious (as much as you might want to share what your company is doing, people can and have been fired for sharing corporate information). A good rule of thumb: If you have the slightest bit of doubt about whether you should share something, don't.

The Information Age is a great time to be alive, and it's wonderful to learn about others (and share information about yourself). Just keep an eye on what information you share, and you should be able to enjoy the internet without causing yourself problems.

Readers, what information do you avoid sharing? How do you keep your information safe? Does anyone else remember MySpace as something other than a defunct site? (And for that matter, does anyone remember the even earlier sites, like Friendster?)

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