Pagans, privacy, and online conversation

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There’s a lot of conversation out there about online privacy issues. They’re especially potent for people in any minority community – any group where there are sometimes misunderstandings about what we do, why we do it, and what it means for the other people around us.

The reality of the Internet:

The Internet has a long memory. Anything you post might be found weeks, months, years, or even decades from now.

Sites change their policies and settings. Friends pass on something without thinking about it. Once you post something – even as simple as your name – there’s a chance it might get out beyond the place you thought it would stay.

People can – and do – track down someone on the Internet from a very small amount of information (a name, a state, etc.) If you have had concerns with stalkers, abusive former partners or family members, or similar issues, you need to be extra careful.

Finally, be aware that on free sites that rely on advertising (this includes Facebook, Google, and many others), that you (and your content) are not the user, you are the product. Companies want to know all about you so they can sell more ads.

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Special considerations for Paganism:

Talking with others:

Many people still misunderstand Paganism or some practices within specific Pagan religions (and can be nervous about or scared of what they don’t know). Or they may misinterpret something meant quite differently.

Plus, as we learn and grow, we get better at talking about what we do and why we do it. Our early questions and conversations may not represent our later understanding and practice. It takes time for most people to learn how to talk and explain their practices and beliefs to people outside Paganism.

People do judge by our surroundings:

Some people in the Pagan community may have beliefs, practices, or actions that do not represent what we do or want to do – but which still fall under the same general label and which end up next to our posts on a given site, or otherwise be something easily found if someone goes looking for us. Me, I’d rather avoid having to do that explanation until I’ve given someone a good foundation in what I, myself, do.

Some conversations are better in person: 

When we wish to be open and public about our Paganism, we often want to tell people face to face, rather than having them stumble across something online that may only reflect part of what we do, believe, or value.

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Considerations

Names have power:

Reconsider using your full legal name (or first name + last name).  While this is common in professional online settings (and makes a lot of sense there), there’s a lot less reason to use it in personal religious conversations.

You might use a common nickname, your middle name, or you could pick a pseudonym that reflects you and your goals within Paganism. Any of these choices will help protect your privacy as you explore Paganism. Many Pagans pick what is called a public Craft name that they use for online conversation and public events.

If using a site like Facebook (which requires your legal name in its terms of service), think very carefully about what groups and conversations you join and what they reflect about you.

Be extra careful to check your privacy settings regularly: many sites, including Facebook, have made changes with little warning, leaving material  public that the posters thought was not available to search engines or casual readers.

When picking a name, consider how easy it is to spell. (Jenett is not a good choice here: lots of people type it a Jennet or Jenette). And it’s a lot easier if the name is either relatively short, or at least has something that’s obviously a brief way to refer to you. For example, Jenett is a lot easier in casual conversation than Lady Petal Moonriver of the Blue Cove of the Mermaid.

In general, avoiding titles, fantasy/fictional characters, and so one goes over better.

Respect other people’s privacy:

Refer to people by the name they use in the Pagan community in Pagan settings, and their preferred or legal name in professional settings. If you’re not sure, ask them privately before posting something that others can see that obviously refers to them. Don’t post photographs of anyone without checking with them that it’s okay (more below on why.)

Names aren’t the only identifying information:

Keep a separate email address for Pagan conversations from your work or professional email address. It’s good not to cross the streams. (And you will want to keep connections and conversations with the Pagan community even if you change jobs suddenly.)

Be careful about what other information you include in your profile. Be careful about giving out the following information in public or widely available profiles;

  • The specific town you live in (Consider listing a nearby city instead).
  • Your full birthdate (Often used for banking or security information.)
  • Any information you use for passwords or security questions (like the names of your pets, children, spouse, favorite sports team, etc.)
  • Information that might allow someone to manipulate you (details of a loved one’s illness or death, for example)

If you have children, also be careful about what you say about them. Information like the schedule of a team’s games, a school mascot or colors, the play they’re putting on this year, or other details like that can be easily put together by someone trying to identify you or figure out where you might be when, or if you’re the same person as another part of your online identity.

Think about how information connects:

You might be fine with your extended family, co-workers, and friends finding out you’re Pagan by doing a search online. (Some people truly are.) However, think about what other information you might share.

For example, many people will have things come up in their life where they may want ideas or advice from other Pagans. Perhaps that’s dealing with a chronic health issue, creating a ritual to help you deal with a bad relationship ending or a miscarriage, or perhaps it’s trying to figure out how to handle a very stressful job situation. In all of those cases, you may share information that you don’t necessarily want other people close to your situation to stumble across.

Examples:

If you’re stressed because your boss is treating you badly, you may not want your boss to find the ritual you’re coming up with to help you decide whether to stay in that job. You’d rather have time to think and reflect on the situation before you make a choice.

If you’re dealing with a new chronic health issue, you may not want your in-law who always offers tons of unsolicited and frustrating advice to start sending you emails every day with how if you just did what she suggests, you’d feel all better right now.

If you are getting to know people in your local Pagan community, there may be people who don’t respect your boundaries (all communities can have some.) You don’t want someone turning up at your office and outing you as Pagan without you being okay with that and inviting them to meet you.

If you work in a public service profession – teachers, doctors, nurses, librarians, town or city employees – it may be important to you that everyone you work with can feel comfortable asking you for your professional help. Some people may not feel comfortable asking you if they know you’re Pagan. Others may want to talk about Paganism, not the thing your job does for them. Both of these can be difficult to deal with and get in the way of doing great professional work.

Steps to take

If you use your legal name as your online name, it’s easy for people to stumble across more information than you both might feel comfortable with. (And there isn’t a whole lot of legal precedent for how to handle some of the complicated situations that can come up online.)

If you choose an online username that isn’t directly linked to your legal name, you have more opportunities to talk about these topics in a way that avoids these challenges.

You should also be non-specific about where you work, or in some cases, the specific thing you do at work. For example, I’m glad to tell people I’m a librarian, but I don’t talk in detail about where my job is, because it would instantly identify me. (I work in an unusual library, the only one of its kind in the state I live in.)

Be thoughtful about photographs

By themselves photographs are relatively easy to understand. However, new scanning and image matching software is making it easier and easier to match photos of the same person from two very different settings (say a professional setting and a Pagan gathering.) Think about how you want to present yourself online, and whether these connections are something you need to be extra careful about.

Also, be extra careful about posting any photos that involve people in ritual, at festivals, or other gatherings. Teachers, health care professionals, and others who interact with the larger community may be far more private than you are. Get permission before posting images of others in any online space – even if you think it’s protected and private.

Think carefully about ‘friends of friends’ privacy levels:

A number of sites allow friends-of-friends access to materials. However, remember that this might include people you had no idea about – a boss, a co-worker, a family member who disapproves of your choices. It’s often a better choice to keep personal material (like religion, politics, sexuality, etc.) to people you identify directly yourself (the people you select as friends on the site, not all the people they select.)

Check yourself out:

Do a search on your legal name (and other material a potential employer, school, or family member might try). See what comes up. If it’s material you thought was private, you can try to work with the site to remove it, or work to have other material (like professional conversations) rise higher in the search engines. (Neither of these is easy: it’s a lot simpler not to have it come up in the first place.)

Spend a little time keeping up to date on privacy issues:

Finally, keep yourself informed about online privacy issues.

You can check out the EFF’s page on 12 steps to protect online privacy. I really like danah boyd’s blog about her research and commentary on online networking and privacy issues to keep up to date with new situations.

Some sites with lessons and tips you can work through include

Bonus: when this stuff comes up at work, in your family, or in your child’s school, you’re going to sound smart and informed.

[last edited December 23, 2016]

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