Who You Are When You Are Alone Online… That Is Who You Really Are

Its been an increasing fascination for me, the difference between how people will act in person compared to how they act online when believing they are anonymous (not linked to their real name or identity).  This is the reason why we need mentors – why I need several mentors – as I’ve written about before recently, so that we feel accountable for our “secret” or “private” online interactions.  Its the only healthy and honest way to live.  And the only way to live it, is to be an open book, to live your life with real accountability, and to not think of yourself as “anonymous.”

You are not anonymous.

You represent your faith, your family, the people who think they know you in real life.

Who you are when you are alone online… THAT is who you really are.

I stumbled upon an article this morning dealing with this very topic, from Christian Canadian author, Tim Challies.  He brings up Josh Duggar, the Christian man and political leader who was found to not only have a sordid past of sexually molesting several girls, including his own sisters, but to be living a double life as an upstanding Christian man who had not one, but two adultery accounts for the past two years.

While Josh’s double life is an extreme example, and something I don’t think occurs very often, sometimes even normal sinners fall into a situation where they are seriously tempted to lash out at someone online when they think they will remain anonymous.

The sad thing is that people who are tempted to do this, usually are not truly growing spiritually or relationally, because when you feel responsible to God (and others) for your actions, you don’t act differently online.  If someone is pretending to be a certain way – pretending to actually be kind, patient, loving, self-controlled etc, but are actually acting the opposite online, they split their personality to be one way in public, and another in private.  They may work at your church, be nice and appear totally normal, be able to hold a nice conversation with you face to face, but in their private times alone on their computer, they send horrible emails trying to control family members or coworkers, use their free time to stalk people they don’t like who are no longer talking to them, look at their social media accounts or read their blogs, searching for an opportunity to vent their hidden hatred or anger.  Its sad to me because people who do this will never grow this way, without being confronted that what they did was wrong, that they aren’t anonymous, they will never feel the necessary conviction from the Holy Spirit to do the painful work of changing their hearts on the inside.

We are all hypocrites to some degree or another, but living with two personas – an online versus a real life persona – destroys a person’s chance of developing real, tangible character – character that doesn’t change depending on the circumstance.  Allowing it to continue destroys the chance of them being convicted and doing the painful work of confronting the things they don’t like about themselves.  I spoke in my recent post Discipleship & Mentors about a time when I allowed myself to do something I knew was wrong, lashing out at family members who even though they were acting evil, provoking me for 5 years, my behaving evil right back was not justified behavior.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.  No one caught me, but I did get myself into trouble as sin always does (destroyed relationships, immense guilt for behaving badly, in trouble with God, etc.).  Not to mention I completely ruined whatever witness I had to those individual family members – I knew giving in to my anger was extremely wrong and harmful (to them and to myself).  Although my actions were always linked to my real self, the fact that I allowed myself to lash out online showed me how easy it was to give in to sinful behavior using social media.  Going to mentors right after the fact (that I had been shutting out of my life or outright avoiding), and being honest about the situation, honest of how I let myself lash out, helped me reject that behavior, and pursue becoming a woman of integrity.  A woman who was responsible, all the time, to God and to others for her actions.

Challies’ article  describes how even our internet searches can be recovered or traced online, showing what a person has been searching for on the internet, what they were truly thinking.

Would you be ok with your internet searches open to the public?  Would it reveal what you really do in your alone time is drastically different from what you project in person, or who you try to be?

“You have heard by now that the site AshleyMadison.com was hacked and that millions of users had their information made public. Ashley Madison is a company that exists to facilitate (and even guarantee) adulterous relationships, and now those people who wanted to be quietly unfaithful to their spouses have been suddenly outed. As I read the headlines and heard of some of those caught up in the scandal (including, sadly, Josh Duggar), I thought back to one of the first times in Internet history that we had to grapple with the power of the data we leave behind us every time we use the Web. For that we will need to go back to 2006.

Who you are when you are alone and online, that is who you really are—no more, and no less.

In 2006, America Online made an epic misjudgment which taught us a valuable lesson: Who you are when you are alone and online, that is who you really are—no more, and no less. As part of a research project headed Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, AOLmade available to the public a massive amount of data culled from their search engine — the search history of 650,000 users over a three-month period. This totaled some 21 million searches. Before releasing the data, they anonymized it, stripping away user names and replacing names with numbers, so that a user with a name like timc2000 simply became User #75636534. Yet because of the often-personal nature of the data, it did not take long before many of those abstract numbers were linked to real names, an obvious and serious violation of privacy and confidentiality. Within days, AOL realized its mistake and withdrew the data, but already it had been copied and uploaded elsewhere on the Internet, where today it lives on in infamy.

Some of the search histories were dark and disturbing, others unremarkable in every way. Still others were strangely amusing. It was often possible to reconstruct a person’s life, at least in part, from what they searched for over a period of time. Consider this user:

  • shipping pets 2006-03-01 16:36:48
  • does ata ship pets 2006-03-01 17:10:35
  • continental.com 2006-03-01 21:34:53
  • pet shipping 2006-03-01 21:35:11
  • broken bones in cat 2006-03-04 03:31:53
  • cat has broken bones above base of tail vet said it will heal on its own
    2006-03-04 03:32:53
  • cat broken bones and diarreah 2006-03-04 03:58:24
  • cat health 2006-03-04 14:10:22
  • cat has broken bones wasn’t bleeding before but now is and now she
    can’t defecate too 2006-03-04 14:16:35
  • mucous blood diarreah in cat 2006-03-04 14:22:47

It is not too difficult to understand what transpired through this three-day history of searches. The search engine data tells a sad story about a person and his or her cat.

This glut of user data raised a nearly endless number of questions and concerns. Primarily, it brought awareness to the fact that search engines know you better than you may like. Actually, they probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. You tend to forget what you have searched for in the past; they don’t. We may like to think that our searches are just quick queries, harmless and pointless inquiries known only to us.

Here is an AOL user whose searches tell a sad story (for sake of space, I have stripped out a large number of searches):

  • body fat calliper 2006-03-01 18:54:10
  • curb morning sickness 2006-03-05 08:53:23
  • get fit while pregnant 2006-03-09 18:49:37
  • he doesn’t want the baby 2006-03-11 03:52:01
  • you’re pregnant he doesn’t want the baby 2006-03-11 03:52:49
  • online degrees theology 2006-03-11 04:05:24
  • online christian colleges 2006-03-11 04:13:33
  • foods to eat when pregnant 2006-03-12 09:38:02
  • baby names 2006-03-14 19:11:10
  • baby names and meanings 2006-03-14 20:01:27
  • physician search 2006-03-23 10:20:04
  • best spa vacation deals 2006-03-27 20:04:09
  • maternity clothes 2006-03-28 09:28:25
  • pregnancy workout videos 2006-03-29 10:01:39
  • buns of steel video 2006-03-29 10:12:38
  • what is yoga 2006-03-29 12:17:31
  • what is theism 2006-03-29 12:18:30
  • hindu religion 2006-03-29 12:18:56
  • yoga and hindu 2006-03-29 12:32:05
  • is yoga alligned with christianity 2006-03-29 12:33:18
  • yoga and christianity 2006-03-29 12:33:42
  • abortion clinics charlotte nc 2006-04-17 11:00:02
  • greater carolinas womens center 2006-04-17 11:40:22
  • can christians be forgiven for abortion 2006-04-17 21:14:19
  • can christians be forgiven for abortion 2006-04-17 21:14:19
  • roe vs. wade 2006-04-17 22:22:07
  • effects of abortion on fibroids 2006-04-18 06:50:34
  • abortion clinic charlotte 2006-04-18 15:14:03
  • symptoms of miscarriage 2006-04-18 16:14:07
  • water aerobics charlotte nc 2006-04-18 19:41:27
  • abortion clinic chsrlotte nc 2006-04-18 21:45:39
  • total woman vitamins 2006-04-20 16:38:16
  • engagement rings 2006-04-20 16:58:37
  • high risk abortions 2006-04-20 17:53:49
  • abortion fibroid 2006-04-20 17:55:18
  • benefits of water aerobics 2006-04-20 23:25:50
  • wedding gown styles 2006-04-26 19:37:34
  • recover after miscarriage 2006-05-22 18:17:53
  • marry your live-in 2006-05-27 07:25:45

This woman goes from searching about pregnancy, to realizing that the father does not want to keep the baby, to researching abortion clinics, to researching whether she can, according to her faith, choose abortion, to dealing with a miscarriage. And at the end of it all, life goes on and she seems ready to be married.

What is so amazing about these searches is the way people transition seamlessly from the normal and mundane to the outrageous and perverse.

What is so amazing about these searches is the way people transition seamlessly from the normal and mundane to the outrageous and perverse. They are, thus, an apt reflection of real life. The user who is in one moment searching for information about a computer game may in the next be looking for the most violent pornography he can imagine. Back and forth it goes, from information about becoming a foster parent to the search for incestual pornography. One user went from searching for preteen pornography to searching for games appropriate for a youth group. Others, spurned lovers, sought out ways of exacting revenge while still others grappled with the moral implications of cheating on their spouses. These searches are a glimpse into the hearts of the people who made them.

And now millions of Ashley Madison users have been outed in much the same way, except this time their actual names and personal information are sitting right there alongside their data. They have been exposed as people who went looking for adultery. And the whole world is sitting by, looking on with an amused eye. Spouses are searching through the data wondering if even their husband, their wife, may have been involved. Gossip blogs are combing the data looking for headlines.

One of the great deceptions of the Internet is that it allows us to think there are two parts to us, the part who exists in real time and space, and the part who exists in cyberspace.

But events like this ought to make us realize that when you go online you display and expose who and what you really are.

And who you really are will eventually find you out. God will not be mocked.”


  1. Very thoughtful article!
    But I disagree with the part whet you said the Holy Spirit can not convict a person unless they are confronted. He can still convict people within the silence of their own hearts,but often he does use external events and people to do this.

  2. Very good article, Dragonflygirl. So true.
    Tangentially related, I often say that Dave Barry quote, “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person”. It’s kind of similar. People often behave differently when they think they won’t be held accountable for bad behavior. It is in those times that they are revealing their “true selves”. Same reason people tend to be nicer in smaller communities and more hostile when they go into the city and the environment is more anonymous, and therefore more hostile, and the toxicity just sort of builds. Like a lot of online environments.

  3. I do think the Holy Spirit is capable of convicting people when they’re on their own. But from what I’ve seen (personally) in dealing with people who live a double life, they do not feel conviction unless confronted with their actions, and even then, some of the truly evil ones still don’t feel true repentance, they only feel remorse that people found out the truth.

    So with the double life kind of people, I feel like maybe they deaden themselves to the Holy Spirit, and therefore hoping they’ll be convicted on their own (and stop on their own) is like waiting for a child abuser to murder their child.

  4. But you’re right, with normal people that actually do feel convicted (because they allow the HS to convict them about their actions), I’m sure they don’t always need to be confronted.

  5. Well my searches would be all youtube,facebook,wordpress and things dealing japanese culture and research for my blog

  6. Yeah, you’re right that people can deaden themselves to the Holy Spirit!
    Someone once told me that the ancient Aztecs saw the conscience as a spinning triangular prism inside the heart, and that as one wore it down, it’s points would feel less and less sharp (meaning that the more you ignore your conscience, or the HS, the more comfortable you will feel sinning).

  7. Exhibit A
    Brit McHenry, being extremely unpleasant when she thinks no one who matters is watching:

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