Protect Your Online Privacy: Start Blogging!

Many therapists have lamented about the lack of privacy the internet has created.  More to the point in my view, the internet has taken away the veil of secrecy psychotherapy has frequently sought refuge behind.  It used to be that the anonymity of large urban areas, or the possibility of a commute to the suburbs insulated therapists from their patients after the analytic hour came to a close.  I friend of mine once went for years before discovering that Therapist A, who had referred him to Therapist B when treatment was stymied, was actually married to Therapist B.  They did not share last names, but my friend in a moment of high curiosity and low impulse control drove over to Therapist A’s home address and discovered Therapist B’s name there as well.  He terminated therapy thereafter.

For myself, I learned that privacy is to a large extent illusory, not from the internet, but from my first job.  I worked in a community mental health center on a 13 mile long by 7 mile wide island which was 2 1/2 hours by boat from the mainland.  You get used to a diminished sort of privacy on an island.  I couldn’t avoid my patients if I wanted to, unless I wanted to avoid the library, most restaraunts, coffeeshops, the beach, or the one movie theater we had in the winter.  Nor could I find privacy in limiting the type of work I did there.  The Community Mental Health Center was the only one on the island.  We were responsible for, and I did, school counseling, Psychiatric hospitalizations (which involved flying with often psychotic people in a Cesna six-seater airplane,) outpatient therapy, Alcohol counseling and DUI classes, drug testing, and court-ordered counseling for domestic violence perpetrators.  I can still remember how when a colleague and I went out to dinner at a local pub one night one-third of the people at the bar left.  It wasn’t just my privacy that was affected here.

You have a choice in situations like that.  You can hide out in your house with a cat and television (which I did at first) or you can start living your life in the community and negotiate boundary crossings on a case by case basis (which I settled upon as my strategy.)  I learned to cultivate a sense of never-too-uptight-never-too-relaxed when I was in public.  It became second nature in many ways.

When I moved to Cambridge, MA, it felt very anonymous by comparison.  But as many practitioners in “The most opinionated zipcode in the US” will tell you, Cambridge is really a village in many ways.  I still ran into people, and by this time, technology was becoming more of a factor.

As Thomas Friedman has observed, “The World Is Flat” in the 21st century.  Globalization and technology have removed many of the barriers to, and some would say protections from, knowing each other.  Our patients can Google us, Yelp hangs up a business page of us whether we like it or not, and are often only one Facebook friend away from connecting with us.

Even if you want to make the poor business decision of staying off the internet in terms of a website, eventually your contributions to the Democratic Party, your address, and notes about you in your alumni magazine are still going to find their way out to the world.  We’re all on an island today.

So what can you do?  Well, my advice is to start blogging.  I know sounds counterintuitive, but it makes sense on a number of levels:

1.  Buddhism tells us to move into the places that scare you.  We exert so much energy trying to avoid things, find a spot where we can stay safe and stop the awkward and uncomfortable learning process.  And yet we ask our patients to do the exact opposite so often: to look underneath those rocks, descend into the depths of the psyche, face their fears.  Our obsessive quest for privacy is perhaps not that different.

2.  Make the internet work for you.  One of the best ways to protect your privacy is to generate a lot of content that you consciously know is public-facing.  Google “Mike Langlois, LICSW” for example.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  What came up probably is pages of my website, professional picture, Youtube videos, and blog posts.  Dig a little deeper and you’ll see me commenting on a few blogs.  This is the practice of radical transparency.  All of that content was written with all of you in mind, my patients, colleagues, friends, family members, potential coaching clients, high school classmates, potential employers, my future children and grandchildren and the FBI.  The way Google and other search engines work, the more content I put out there that is public, the further back any unintentional pieces about me will be.  By embracing that the world is flat I have learned to cultivate a style that I can negotiate in my work life while still feeling authentic.  And it is great advertising, or fair warning, if you are considering working with me.

3.  Radical transparency protects your patient’s privacy as well.  Whether we like it or not, therapists are finding themselves on review sites like Yelp.  Yes, anyone can post a review, and no, Yelp will not taking it down if you ask.  More importantly, your patients might not understand the ramifications for their privacy or PHI if they post a review.  Keeley Kolmes has great resources on this, and you are welcome to use my version of her version as well.  Take a look:

Notice that half of my allotted space is not advertising, but a direct message to any potential commenters.  Rather than hide out and try to get Yelp to take my name down, I have used it as a platform to market my business, model what I feel is ethical professional standards, and provide some information to patients in the spirit of informed consent.  Do I want to get bad reviews?  Of course not, who does?  But that is not an excuse to hide my head in the cybersand.

4. Last, but not least, get over your bad self.  Sometimes listening to our colleagues you would get the feeling that they are dealing with the paparazzi, not the public.  Sure patients and others may be curious about your life, but really most people in the blogosphere just aren’t that interested.  On a good day, my blog gets 200 views, on an amazing day last August I got 689 views.  There are 7 billion people on the planet.  Feel free to correct my math here but according to my calculations that means on a busy day 0.000009842857142857142% of the people on the planet are checking out my most visible presence on the internet.

Am I saying you should blog for the sake of blogging? No.  I am saying that there is a Copernican revolution going on in the 21st century, and therapists need to join it.  Rather than avoiding technology and the internet we need to start understanding it and harnessing it.  You can be googled whether you like it or not.  Yelp doesn’t care about contaminating your transference.

Being professional is about how we rise to the occasion of Web 2.0, not deciding to skip out on the party.

Like this post? There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book. I can rant in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info.

Comments

  1. Good information. I appreciate your viewpoint and it has given me something to think about. Having been a blogger for years, I often wondered at it’s purpose, outside of the personal satisfaction I feel in sharing insights. I do wonder about the privacy issue and consider frequently pulling back from the www. However like you said, I strive to not let my fear of the unknown hinder my growth in this area, which I believe is playing a larger and larger role in the life of this generation. So I stay on hoping that I am correctly understanding the rules of the road and don’t make any major screw ups. I will be following you to glean more insights at a later date. Thanks.

  2. I used to take pride in my lack of digital footprint due to having as common of a name like John Smith. I’ve been surprised that in a short amount of time the amount of content that is associated with me just by using social media, blogging, etc.

    Just like in therapy, there’s power in telling our story, and totally agree, if we’re not telling our story, then we’re letting someone else do it, which may or may not be accurate or true.

    Your post also reminded me of Hasan Elahi who decided to flood the FBI with information re: his whereabouts to be radically transparent.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/opinion/sunday/giving-the-fbi-what-it-wants.html?pagewanted=all

  3. “I learned to cultivate a sense of never-too-uptight-never-too-relaxed when I was in public.”

    I love that description, Mike. It captures the way I have learned to “be” in the world. My job is public facing enough that I just expect to encounter people who know me only from my work role when I go out–including my clients/former clients.

    I agree completely that blogging and professional use of social media really allows us to take some control over what’s out there about us. Ignoring these forces does not.

    Thanks for articulating this issue so eloquently!

  4. Sometimes when people ask me about privacy issues online, I (sort of) jokingly reply, “Privacy is dead.” When you use a CVS or grocery store discount card, someone knows what medication you take and what you eat for lunch. A blog and social media presence is a powerful antidote to any negative review anywhere. People can find you and decide for themselves if they like what you talk about, or not. If you hide and don’t open your mouth, anyone can say anything about you and no one has a means to objectively assess the information.

    And, scary about that referral situation you refer to in your post. Trust is earned. Just because we think we know better and can hide parts of our true identities doesn’t make manipulating that artificial boundary right, compassionate or ethical.

    • To mangle Oscar Wilde: There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is being talked about without controlling the message. 😉

      One of my professors told me about a similar (and somewhat worse) referral situation recently. What goes through these people’s minds?!

  5. As someone who recently went through a grad school MFT ethics class, I have to say THANK YOU! I wish you’d posted this during that term so I could’ve handed out printouts. I grew up managing the multiple relationships inherent to life as a pastors’ kid, which (as it turns out) was great practice for my future career. It’s not a crisis to run into clients (or congregation members) at the grocery store, and it’s pretty well unavoidable in the small town where I currently live! I understand the need for boundaries, but I don’t understand the heavy-handed warnings used on therapy grad students.

    When I started grad school, I purposefully set up professional accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blog) and started establishing my public online face and the “wall” between it and my personal online presence (which isn’t connected to my real name, anyway). Like you said: I started making the presence that I *intend* people to find. Trying to hide and pretend the Internet doesn’t exist is just bound to lead to misinformation and such.

  6. Thanks, Mike! I’ll be sharing your post with my BlogStart for Therapists class on Monday when we talk about transparency and risk management. You have once again underscored how empowering it can be to effectively and ethically use social media.

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