Why you must be a liar online

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You should be a liar online.

No, scratch that, you MUST be a liar online if you have more than 232.86 friends/followers/fans in social media.

I lie all the time online. Flat out lies, deception, incorrect information, omission – you name it, I do it. I lie about where I live, about my birthday, about my family or lack thereof, about all of the things that would be useful for someone to cause me significant harm.

Why? Simple. There are bad people out there. What you probably don’t know is how numerous they are. Based on the FBI Uniform Crime Report, here are some interesting statistics. I make a couple of assumptions here. I assume that the FBI doesn’t double-count, which means that if someone is raped and murdered, it’s filed only under murder. Second, I make the assumption that law enforcement is working as intended and each crime is perpetrated by a unique individual within a calendar year. Yes, there are definitely multiple offenders, but I’d hope that if someone commits murder, they’re not out of jail and doing it again within the same calendar year.

So, with that disclaimer, here’s why you should be lying online:

  • If you have more than 20,143 friends/fans, one of them is statistically likely to be a murderer.
  • If you have more than 3,485 friends/fans, one of them is statistically likely to be a violent rapist.
  • If you have more than 752 friends/fans, one of them is statistically likely to be a robber. (remember PleaseRobMe.com?)
  • If you have more than 381 friends/fans, one of them is statistically likely to be a violent criminal.

Now, these statistics (derived from the FBI data of crimes per 100,000 population members) aren’t uniform, of course. The crime rate per 100,000 people will be different if you physically live in Fargo, ND than if you live in midtown Manhattan. That said, it’s still worth thinking about, still worth realizing that in the social world we live in, there are plenty of bad people mixed in with the good. We think nothing of having 100, 500, or 1,000 people in our social media circles that we’ve never met and never had a chance to get a gut feeling for. You’d better bet that at that scale of people, there are some bad apples in the bunch.

This is why you should be lying. All 3,000 or 5,000 or 20,000 friends/fans/followers don’t need to be criminals in order to make your life miserable and/or cause you harm. Only 1 of them that takes advantage of information you post online carelessly is needed to do the job. I’m not saying you need to live under a rock and hide away from everyone online, either. I’m just saying that you need to be careful with the information you share and be thoughtful about how truthful you actually need to be online. Do you need to check in everywhere? Do you need to share photos of your kids? Do you need to announce that you’re not at home?

Transparency and stupidity don’t have to be synonymous.

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44 responses to “Why you must be a liar online”

  1. Thanks for this important reminder. I know lots of folks in law enforcement and tend not to share much personally, because I hear about all the bad stuff out there. And holding back does put me at a definite disadvantage, in the “fitting in” online category. As I enter a second year online, a lot of my natural inhibitions about public sharing are also starting to come down, because I’m beginning to feel like I vicariously know the small subset of folks I’ve followed awhile…but that doesn’t take into account everyone else online who is able to observe any information shared…It’s better to be safe than sorry and to find a way to share that is friendly, without compromising.

  2. I don’t know man. Sounds a bit extreme.

  3. Paul Roetzer Avatar
    Paul Roetzer


    Interesting take, and the statistics certainly support your position. I guess I tend to avoid disclosing certain information, versus lying about things related to family, birthday, locations, etc. It also depends on whether we’re talking about a more open network (Twitter), or a more selective network (Facebook).

    Not sure there’s a right or wrong approach here, but people definitely need to be conscious of what they divulge online, and the potential for bad people to use that information.



  4. I love this post. Why? I often tell people that I, personally do not have to be transparent but translucent. You don’t need to know the name of my children, whether I date. I don’t use Foursquare because where I go is really between me and the person I am meeting. People are forgetting that this information is not only accessible to your competitors, but as you said rapist, serial killers etc. Not to sound paranoid, but really? Really, can’t we keep somethings to ourselves? We take on-line social connecting to be different than connecting offline.

    Companies, brands, government agencies need to be transparent – people need to be translucent, especially those with children. Give them their privacy, don’t take it away from them.

  5. I love this post. Why? I often tell people that I, personally do not have to be transparent but translucent. You don’t need to know the name of my children, whether I date. I don’t use Foursquare because where I go is really between me and the person I am meeting. People are forgetting that this information is not only accessible to your competitors, but as you said rapist, serial killers etc. Not to sound paranoid, but really? Really, can’t we keep somethings to ourselves? We take on-line social connecting to be different than connecting offline.

    Companies, brands, government agencies need to be transparent – people need to be translucent, especially those with children. Give them their privacy, don’t take it away from them.

  6. Great post. I tend to be a very honest person, but I do my best not to share everything online. I actually went into some of my profiles after reading this and removed or changed some of the information there. I think this is very good advice for people involved in the social media sphere.

    I also love Cd’s comment below about being translucent. Great way to put it.

  7. Tershbango Avatar


  8. Janenemurphy Avatar

    Yikes! Those stats are pretty scary. I don’t reveal too much about myself on my blog. Still, I think I might be revealing too much. Thanks for the wake up call.

  9. Chris you are on target. CD love your language transparent and translucent.

    So, how do we navigate for our clients who use foursquare to connect with and reward consumer behavior if they do not participate?

    Paul not disclosing is lying just by another label. While it is our choice withholding information is just a layer. I support anyone saying I am not comfortable giing you that information. So I love that Chris is stating it straight forward.

    Is there another post coming with what are great ways to participate without disclosing everything? You know folks do better with examples.

  10. Intriguing the statistics you cite are about your friends. But, what of yourself? What are the odds YOU are a criminal? Nahh, don’t answer that.

  11. I tend to do a bit of this myself. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

  12. “Transparency and stupidity don’t have to be synonymous.”
    I wonder why this isn’t obvious. We make such a big deal of privacy because we so often betray ourselves.
    If we’d wise up, no problem. Or less problem, anyway.
    Branding, people, branding. An essential if opaque concept.

  13. I guess we should also stop giving our credit card to waiters and waitresses? After all, they take it away from us, sometimes for awhile. There can certainly be a lot deleterious things that can be done with your credit card in someone else hands.

  14. These are sobering statistics and they make perfect sense. And they’re scary.

    I’ve used a postal suite for years because no one needs to know where I live. I don’t use my kids’ names when I mention them in a post and I don’t share photos of them. It’s my blog and my business. They didn’t ask to be part of it.

    You’re right that no one needs to announce when they’re not home. I’ve never understood the need to tell others where they are.

    Thanks for sharing this valuable info. Every person who’s active online needs to read this.

  15. I think there’s a big difference in lying and omitting information. I agree that people are too transparent nowadays, I honestly don’t need to know that you just changed the oil in your car…but I am interested in your take on marketing info or something else that is in my wheelhouse. While I understand that certain information can be used to do harm to you, your family, your professional life, your credit, whatever…I strongly disagree with “lying” and deception. CD has a great point, translucence versus transparency. Bottom-line is though, if someone is 1) is even interested in doing some sort of harm to you out of millions of people 2) there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it. They will find a way regardless of your deception, lying and other actions. Be smart, use common sense is the advice I would give.

  16. Chris, good to know the stats, but as someone who has worked with violent criminals in my past career (yes, the rapists, murderers and scary ones) we should keep in mind that most of those crimes aren’t random. They don’t tend to pick someone out of the blue, who they have no previous relationship with to go hack up. Now if someone is a gang member with 1000s of online followers they may have more of an issue…

    That said, there are some people I DO know, who aren’t violent, but I”d rather they not know everything about me. So I don’t quickly divulge the town I live in and I’ll never be a FourSquare user. I also don’t often share pics of my kid because I feel his online presence should be his to own when he’s old enough.

    Otherwise, we all take risks every time we step out of the house (or log in online, I suppose). Be cautious, but not scared.

  17. Interesting post. However, the majority of crime is committed by people who already have access to this information (due to interpersonal relationships) and by people who acquire this information outside of popular social media sites. This is a reality. For example, women are more likely to die at the hands of their husbands versus information released via a tweet that a stranger reads (and then acts on).

    I do agree that people have to be careful with social media information but it is not the data itself that is the motivation for bad behavior. Mainly it’s the 1) fabrication of depth (viewing “chats” here and there as “solid in-depth friendships or worse, dating) of relationships via social media that allows emotionally unstable or dependent people to feel “rejected” if a social media connection changes (unfriend, unfollow) and then they retaliate (I have dealt with this personally, for years), and 2)cyber-bullying (even for adults) via social media by people who are often aquatinted with the person in question in both real life and social media (sometimes just social media). Relational issues not informational ones have been the cause of most cyber bullying, cyber warfare and even escalation to violence by way of social media.

    Great read, thanks for sharing.

  18. I’ve had bad things happen to me as a result of being online. They would happen offline, too, because that’s life. Not going to lie, stats are just stats. Living is different.

  19. I am all for raising awareness and being protective of personal information that could be used to cause harm, but this is a bit alarmist and the real problem is that most people have no idea what the real risks are.

    Sure, if you have 20,000 followers, chances are, one of them is crazy. Does that mean you will fall victim to them? Unlikely… I don’t care how much information about yourself you put out there, chances are you’ll be fine.

    Let’s say you fear death above all else (some fear public speaking). Know that your odds of being murdered in the United States of America by a psycho is around 1 in 200. Perhaps you think that’s high, but compared to your chances of dying on your next trip the grocery store in your car is around 1 in 100.

    Yikes, my chances of surviving are better hanging with a psycho than driving to and from work every day.

    In fact, you are more likely to die of a heart attack just reading this article and getting freaked out by “scary” psychos on your Twitter stream… try 1 in 5. Yep… eat those veggies. Life is not as dangerous as Christopher thinks it is.

  20. Chris, are you ever going to tell us your real name?

  21. Christopher, good point. As someone who has firsthand experience of what lengths someone will go to to cause harm to another, your post is well received.

    But I must question the logic of your statistics. Regardless of the number of total followers you have, only a small subset of them are within a close enough radius (or willing to travel to be within that radius) to do you harm. This makes your daunting figures, well, less so.

    Of course — and you said it in your last paragraph — it only takes one, so we need to be conscious of what we’re putting out there.

    1. Exactly right. If you’re interested, follow the link to the FBI web site. You can get specific MSA data sets for exactly where you live, assuming you live in an MSA.

  22. How do we know you’re not lying to us about this?

  23. Darn, Christopher. What’s it like to live in a constant state of fear of horrible, statistically possible but improbable events? On second thought, I’d rather not know.

  24. And yet I’m willing to bet (and I make this bet nearly every time I post to a blog, record a podcast, or go to an industry event) that it is statistically far more likely that the person who breaks into my house will have done it the old fashioned way: watching my door to see when I leave. I’m willing to make that same bet when it comes to the guy who mugs me in NYC next time I’m there: he will not have checked Twitter to find out where I am before mugging me. I’m not sure I conjugated my verbs there correctly, but you catch my drift.

    I have no fear of someone who committed murder simply for the fact that they committed murder. Murder is a pretty broad term, legally speaking. There are plenty of people who have been convicted of murder who were acting in self defense or in defense of others. Rapists? Were I a woman, that might be a little more worrisome, but do we have any statistics on how many women are raped by internet stalkers who flew to someone else’s town, state or country to perpetrate the act? Again, locals are far scarier than random people following you online.

    Until we see some studies and statistics that show causation or at least correlation between online information sharing and crime, I’m going to have to call shenanigans on the notion that we should be worried about our Twitter followers or Facebook friends, generally speaking.

    Your overall point, that we should not overshare, is a good one. I’m down with that – but perhaps not for the exact same reasons you are. I just happen to think that a lot of things are none of anyone’s business. All there is to it. End o’ story.

  25. I’m calling link bait on this one. Do you think a criminal who wants to do you harm will be deterred because your home address isn’t listed on Facebook? Do you know how easy it is to find that information elsewhere? Unless you’re trying to get competitors to hide their contact information for fear of stalkers and rapists. In that case, well played, my friend.

    1. Oh, I do know. I’m not saying that it’s not hard to track things down via other sources. I’m saying that you really shouldn’t hand it to people on a silver platter with a bow.

        1. Kelly, I read your post (and I absolutely love the header graphic on your blog), and you make some great points (and with humor too). However, I’ll agree with Chris’s comment of, “you really shouldn’t hand it to people on a silver platter with a bow”. My sister has two beautiful young children, and she posts many, many photos of them to Facebook. Just this week it was her 6-month-old in the bathtub. I told her that our friends and family (who we trust) may enjoy seeing these, but perhaps her daughters won’t want hundreds of photos of themselves available on the internet once we get older. I just personally think that there’s a happy medium of what to say and share online. Again, that’s me, and I probably prefer to be a bit more private than most (but not as much as Christopher Penn!). The internet just makes everything a little easier for people, although I’m less worried about criminals than I am simply keeping part of my private life private.

    2. I’m with Kelly on this. Omitting info is one thing, lying is another. Pick and choose what you post. People can find you anywhere. And a lot of it would be based on your philosophy of selecting friends. There just seem to be a lot of flawed conclusions being drawn from data, that is clearly not uniform, even if you live in Manhattan!

    3. I just linked to Kelly’s post on this. Didn’t realize she’d already been here. So, this is what prompted your post, Kelly? 🙂

  26. Christopher

    I agree with you but at the same time people who are criminals will stop at nothing to find and hurt you. If you never discuss where you are, how many children you have, their names, etc. they still are going to be able to find you. They get a city/town they will get the information that they need to be able to gain access to you. Now giving them places you frequent, is making it a lot easier and not always advised.

    We need to be cautious and we see where people are careless but unless we are going to create a profile that is completely false except for our names and never divulging any information we will never really be safe. And even then, when our employer has our name and photo and a bit about us on their website, our information is out there.

    Great reminder to be cautious and pay attention to what you post.

    1. Oh, unquestionably there are plenty of ways to get at you. I’m not saying there aren’t. I’m saying, make it slightly less convenient!

  27. One of my favorite implementations was the AMEX one-time number card. Sadly, it went away.

  28. Throatwobbler Mangrove.

  29. […] every once in awhile an event stirs up people’s insecurities about internet privacy. Or some blogger suggests that one out of every 752 Twitter followers may be a […]

  30. I can run really fast.

    And I’m thinking about buying a gun.

    That work?

  31. I’ve been saying this stuff for years!!! Thanks for quantifying, Chris.

    However, I must point out, your assumption about the FBI database is wrong. A rape and murder is indeed filed under both.

  32. […] aside the risks to personal safety (see Why I Deleted My Foursquare Account by Ari Herzog or Why You Must Be a Liar Online by Christopher S. Penn ), do you really want online services which are aimed at getting you to buy […]

  33. OK, so this kind of pains me. I have a book coming out early this year. I guess I should use a fake name o r someone’s going to come after me?

    Funny this morning, literally minutes before I found this post (through a link on Kikolani), I read an utterly opposing view (which I generally like). Maybe you two can get a dialogue going. 🙂

    Can We Please Stop the Fear Mongering About Privacy?

  34. “Transparency and stupidity don’t have to be synonymous.” Excellent point. I found this article by reading comments in the opposite view written by Kelly Watson, and believe that there is always time and place to give your true information, but in most cases it is not online.

  35.  Avatar

    This is the best post ever.

  36. Rukmini Wilson Avatar
    Rukmini Wilson

    If lying about anything that could identify you is your advice, then you must be lying about lying itself. Therefore you are Christopher S. Penn, brilliant.

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