I think we all realize you can embarrass yourself on the internet. Badly. What not as many people realize is you often can't delete the evidence as completely as you think.
If Google's web crawlers have been by to index a particular webpage, they store a copy of that page as backup, and any person who knows how to use Google Cache can look at the backup.
Which means if you just deleted or put a privacy lock on some embarrassing entry on your blog or LiveJournal, the backup still exists and is completely accessible.
The moral of the story is: What happens on Google stays on Google. If the web crawlers have seen it, you are no longer in control of it.
And this says nothing of drama-hounds who screen-capture things that look controversial, or archives like the Wayback Machine that seek to preserve our online cultural artifacts.
The internet is more than just a public place; it's a public place that other people can show up to retro-actively. Don't assume that just because only three people read your blog today, only three people ever will. If one of those three people links to your post in the right forum, ten thousand people could show up tomorrow to have a peek at what you said.
The post at BookEnds discussed the idea that authors need to be careful about their online image. You don't want to offend people, and you also don't want to bore them with endless stories about your cat.
But I'm really of two minds about this. On one hand, I heartily agree with the sentiment behind this XKCD comic, which is in disagreement with what Jessica at BookEnds said:
As writers, we should not censor ourselves. We are here to SPEAK. We are here to communicate what is in our heads, not to stifle ourselves for fear of losing someone's esteem or losing money. We're supposed to be courageous and loud-mouthed, and as artists, we're ALLOWED to have personality.
But on the other hand, I have seen many, many people make themselves look like idiots on the internet, and I have managed that trick personally faaaaaar too many times. I understand what Jessica at BookEnds is worried about, and I believe the answer to our problem is...
If you've got online hobbies, engage in them freely and fearlessly--enjoy the heck out of yourself. The awesome thing about the internet is you can easily find people just as gloriously weird as you, so go ahead and do so! Live your life, and not in fear.
Just do so under a pseudonym. The world can always use another steelravynn777, amirite?
Keep your hobby-life strictly separate from your real name and your 'real' online life. Create a different email account; create a separate blog. Never include any correct personal information when you sign up for an online journal you intend to use for your hobby, and minimize the amount of information such websites show publicly in your profile.
This won't necessarily protect your identity from a determined internet sleuth; some people are malicious, and some of them are extremely smart with computers. However, if you refrain from really ticking people off with your internet shenanigans, you're not likely to run afoul of such a person. (No guarantees, however; see above comment about maliciousness.)
I personally feel no guilt about this sort of stealthiness. I have a right to be a weirdo, and I also have a right to determine who knows that. For example, it isn't my boss's business what I do in my spare time, so I am perfectly comfortable safe-guarding that information from him.
My final thoughts have to do with the matter of your 'real' internet presence--i.e. the one you do want associated with your professional name.
If you're trying to build an online presence to serve a business interest--such as building your brand if you're an author, a literary agent, or a small business owner--then you need to remember that when you post, you're at work.
And at work, you behave professionally and you keep your mind on the job.
So what is your job? This needs some defining.
I'll first reiterate a distinction I've made on the blog before because I think it ties into this discussion:
Anyone can write, and what they write is valid art and valid expression.
However, if you're seeking publication for your writing, then you need to realize you are writing for other people. It's not enough for you to enjoy what you've written; the book is not publishable unless hundreds, or thousands, of complete strangers will enjoy it too.
So how does this relate to the discussion here? Like so:
If you're using social media to build your business interests, it's not enough for you to be entertained by what you say. What you're aiming for--what your 'job' is--is to convince hundreds, or thousands, of complete strangers that you have engaging, interesting or funny things to say.
If you're a non-fiction author, your job is 'educator'.
If you're a novelist, your job is 'entertainer'.
There is overlap between the two, and a lot of room for fuzzy definitions, but that's the core of it. When you log in to create a post under your professional name, you should be striving to either interest or entertain people.
People who are not you! Who may not even be like you. And that's the tricky issue, because if you've been engaging in online hobbies, you're very used to creating posts that are mostly for your own entertainment. Those kinds of posts usually entertain others too, but they can also be self-indulgent.
And I think that's the distinction Jessica at BookEnds is trying to get across to her readers. It's self-indulgent to go off on a political rant; it's self-indulgent to natter about how cute your cat is. Those kinds of posts are not aimed at entertaining or educating others, so they shouldn't show up under your professional name. Put those posts on your hobby-blog, not your professional blog.
One very interesting point discussed in the comments of the BookEnds post is how much personality a writer should let seep into their posts. The answer is: exactly as much or as little as you want, provided you are entertaining people.
You can have hilarious mom stories like Ello provides, and you can have wistful dreaming-out-loud like I'm Not Hannah.
The acid test is whether you think other people will enjoy or appreciate them. It's not enough for the post to merely be something you really want to say--not on your professional blog, at least--it has to also be something other people are interested in hearing.
Did your last post survive the acid test? Do you agree or disagree with the distinctions I've made? Where do you think the line between private and professional should lie, and how much of your personality are you comfortable splashing out there for the world to see?
What things would you never talk about on the internet? What sorts of things are out there already that you wish weren't? Do you worry about what your kids have put out there?
I'd love to hear your thoughts!