Student Gladly Shares Life Details on the Web

Steve Inskeep talks to a 22-year-old graduate student about why he posts so much of his personal information online. Jonthon Coulson says he doesn't consider silly profiles, political views and biographical data as private or personal. He actually savors feedback from his online community.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All this week, we've been talking about your privacy. Today, we'll meet a man who keeps very little private, in fact, puts his life online with a sound track.

(Sound bite of song, "American Idiot" by Green Day)

MONTAGNE: This music greets Web surfers at a blog for Jonathan Coulson. There he writes he's a 22-year-old student at the University of Missouri, that a personality test gave him a 78 percent score in emotional stability, and that he doesn't want to die alone. All that and more just, and it's just one of his six blogs.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now, we're going to talk to Jonathan Coulson, and ask whether anything is really private anymore, whether anything should be.

Jonathan, welcome to the program

Mr. JONATHAN COULSON (Student, Web Blogger): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: I want to ask first about the Web Site on which your blogs exist, something called myspace.com. Explain what that is for people who've never seen it.

Mr. COULSON: MySpace is one of several social networks that allow people to post profiles, and the basic concept here is that you're going to find other users that share your interests. And, in my personal experience, most of the other users you find are people who you know offline, anyway.

INSKEEP: You keep a blog, as lots of people, perhaps millions of people now do.

Mr. COULSON: Six.

INSKEEP: Yeah, why six?

Mr. COULSON: I have blog that's dedicated purely to my political ramblings. Then I have a personal blog that I use sort of as an open journal. The other four are smaller blogs that I've just used from time to time, one that's just a blog about blogs, actually, because I guess I'm just that interested in them.

INSKEEP: Mr. Coulson, what are your limits? What are things you would never post online?

Mr. COULSON: I guess I have a higher tolerance than most. I think there's a lot of value in personal expression. But even when I set out my profiles, I never put my phone number on there--it says "Upon request"--or my personal address, because these are just bits of information I just don't generally give out to people. I don't mind if they email, so I leave those channels open to them.

INSKEEP: So, you do have some limits, which is very interesting. Because one would imagine after reading all six of your blogs, there might be very little need to ever call you and ask you anything in the first place.

Mr. COULSON: Yeah. Well, I guess, the one group that I guess it does concern me that they might read my blog would be future employers. Granted, I don't particularly plan on applying anywhere that my political activism would be a problem. But this is a big concern for a lot of people my age.

INSKEEP: Have people that you know already had problems?

Mr. COULSON: This is a hard one. I don't know anyone who has personally had any sort of difficulty getting a job outside of just the problems with our economy. I don't know anybody who has faced like, university sanctions. But I do know a number of students who have taken down personal information based on the threat of those things.

INSKEEP: To the extent that you're able to know, who's reading your blogs?

Mr. COULSON: My mother, actually. Outside of that, I have quite a few friends here at school that have blogs because of me, and kind of read mine, as I read theirs. My political blog, actually, I use as a listserve, as well, so it kicks out to about 60 people who are just are interested in hearing my thoughts.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you don't really worry about who reads this stuff--once you got your mom out of the way, anyway.

Mr. COULSON: Well, I didn't even worry about her, particularly. And, like I noted, I think I'm less concerned about privacy, generally, than other people are. I don't have much to hide. Personal information I don't think is a secret. And other than that, anything that I'm thinking or saying, I'd like to put out there, because if I'm wrong, I can only learn from people's feedback.

INSKEEP: In the end, given that you're mostly communicating with a few people that you already know, what's the point, really, of posting all this stuff? Why not just pick up a phone? Send an email?

Mr. COULSON: That's a great question. The advantage, I think, to MySpace and blogs comes down to time shifting. I don't have to call them and expect them to pick up the phone, interrupt them in class, or with their studies or work. I could just put it on my blog, and at their convenience, they can come find that information. There's some personal satisfaction to me, also, in posting to the general audience.

INSKEEP: Are you likely to post whatever comments you may have about this interview on one of your blogs?

Mr. COULSON: Yeah. Yeah, that'll happen.

INSKEEP: You want to give us a sneak preview?

Mr. COULSON: It does seem that NPR has fallen in rank with my university, and a lot of others, in looking at the privacy concerns, and not looking at the benefits of these technologies. And so, I'll highlight the benefits just to give some counter perspective, even if no one reads them.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, that's why we're talking to you now, so that millions of people can hear your perspective.

Mr. COULSON: Yeah. Well, I think that students and kids my age are using these tools to find each other and to keep in contact with each other. We can meet and share ideas, and form issue groups, and find allegiances. But when that doesn't happen, we don't share as many ideas.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Coulson, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. COULSON: Thank you very much for speaking with me.

INSKEEP: Oh, just before you go, if you could just give us your mother's home number.

Mr. COULSON: Sure, that's 821-212-BEEP-622, and that's a false number.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: We did call Jonathan's mom, Sarah, with the correct number. She told us she too was worried about Jonathan's blogs hurting his future employment prospects. Tomorrow, the future of privacy protection.

INSKEEP: Other conversations in our privacy series are at npr.org.

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