Living Online: What I’ve Learned

by Grace Bonney

I’ve learned a lot about living online over the past nine and half years of blogging. It’s impossible to put yourself out there for close to a decade and not make a few huge mistakes, learn some major lessons and eventually come to an understanding with the very thing that both supports and sometimes scares me. The internet, along with the people communicating on it, is an ever-changing entity. In the beginning, people had Live Journal accounts and then blogs and now we have countless social media outlets where we can share every thought, concern and image we feel like- in real time. I feel like every major blunder I’ve made or heard friends express concern about boils down to the way we live online. What we choose to share- and how- effects not only us, but the people around us and the brands/businesses/blogs that we strive to build. So for our next series of team essays, we decided to tackle the lessons we’ve learned and advice we have for living online. Max, Amy and I have different opinions on what works best for each of us, so I’m both excited and curious to see how all three of these essays reflect different ways of balancing real and online life.

At its best, the internet can be like a cherished scrapbook of memories, documenting your life’s milestones and biggest moments. At its worst, the internet can be a painful reminder of mistakes or lapses in judgement. My goal is always to find and maintain a sense of balance between those two spaces, because I think it’s impossible to ever find a “perfect” way to live online. The internet changes. You change. The people reading change. Just like real life, it’s always about adapting to what feels right for you, right now. And if I had to boil my internet life lessons down to one thought, it’s this: Less is More.

The full essay and my Top 5 Lessons for Living Online continue after the jump…

When I was making notes for this essay, I kept coming back to my own personal experience online, which has very much been about one idea: pretending to be perfect doesn’t make you perfect. I spend a good chunk of my life feeling like I “had” to come across a certain way to be liked and appreciated. I felt so much pressure and would often vent about needing to dress, decorate or behave in a way that felt more palatable to people reading my blog. But in reality, the only person putting that pressure on myself was me. That realization set me free in a way I don’t think I was ready to be until now. It took me a few years to build up a thick-enough skin to deal with negative feedback and when I was emotionally ready to handle anything someone could throw at me, I felt ready to be 100% myself. Getting to this place took a while though. Here’s how I see my arc of living online:

In the beginning: I shared everything and anything. Personal vacation pictures? Yep. Catty comments on other people’s writing? Unfortunately, yes. All of my dreams and goals and hopes? Out there for anyone to read. Result? A whole ton of feedback that immediately put me in my place and made me terrified to share anything online. But rather than really learning from my over-share mistakes, I fell back into my old comfort zone of giving people what I thought they wanted.

In the early-middle: My first hefty dose of negative feedback lead to a serious phase of “only show them the happy”. If people thought my honest thoughts (which weren’t always happy) were too much, I’d only share happy updates, cheerful reviews and pictures that felt like they’d been given a major dose of glossing over. This is probably the part of my online life that I regret the most. Instead of being brave and honest and myself, I chose to only show the things that made it seem like my life was perfect. I don’t beat myself up for falling into a trap that’s easy to fall into, but I do regret missing out on the chance to be honest, open and a bit more open-minded about what people’s responses would be to my ups and downs in life. After a few years of living online this way, it blurred the lines between real and online life so much that I started to believe my own online version of myself. But I wasn’t as happy as I seemed. So I made some big changes in my personal life and started over.

In the middle: Starting over in my personal life meant a major reboot of my online life. Scared to be judged on my freshly exposed and honest personal decisions, I decided to withdraw completely. I only posted about work, gleaned any personal mentions out of my writing and decided to stop using one of my favorite outlets, Twitter, for fear of instant negative kickback. I was so sad and scared during this time, which was pretty much all of 2011 and 2012. Living honestly with myself at that time felt so new and vulnerable and raw, I knew I wasn’t capable of handling feedback on my life at that time. It oddly coincided with very public posts by other bloggers about divorces, financial struggles and other difficult life phases. I marveled at how frank and open those public conversations were (and wondered if those bloggers felt they ‘owed’ people such immediate sharing) and came down on the side of feeling like I wasn’t ready to have my personal life be open to anyone to comment on yet. But then came the moment when I made it over the hump. A few good years of therapy, leaning my oldest and most trusted friends and learning to love myself and not need the approval of other people lead me to a place where being open online- with limits and boundaries- felt natural again.

These days: Right now I feel better than ever living online. I feel like I’ve accepted myself and accepted that I’m still going to make mistakes in how I manage my public and private life. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I DO actually want there to be a difference between my public and private life. A lot of people feel there shouldn’t be one. But I’ve come to believe that you don’t need to put every aspect of your life online in order to be honest, be who you really are and to build trust with the people in your online community. It’s not dishonest to keep some life news private because those little bits and pieces that feel too private to share belong to you- not to anyone else. What I’ve learned is that as long as you focus on a higher quality of balanced sharing (expressing both the good and bad), the quantity is less important.

My 5 Essential Rules for Living Online:

1. Don’t Share What You’re Not Ready to Hear Feedback On

The internet is a two-sided street. You’re not talking in a vacuum and you’re not talking only to people who agree with you. So if you want to rant about something, be prepared to hear from people who disagree. If you want to expose something you’re deeply sensitive or unsure about, be prepared to have people challenge you on it. If you’re not ready for that, it’s not the right time to share that thought. Can you share it anyway? Of course, but you may be setting yourself up to feel wounded about something you’re not ready to defend yet.

2. You Can Always Add, But You Can Never Subtract

We live in a world of screengrabs and instant-feedback. Un-sharing something you regret is virtually impossible. Luckily most of us aren’t celebrities with news agencies reporting on our Tweets and updates, but your readers will remember and share your thoughts nonetheless. So if you feel unsure about whether or not to share something that you’re not 100% comfortable with, it might be time to reconsider. You can always share news after the fact or add more information or updates, but you can never go back and make people un-see something.

3. You’re The Only Person Responsible for Your Image

I’m always surprised when people feel as though they’re not being seen accurately online. I used to complain about people thinking I was supposed to look/act a certain way in real life until I realized no one was painting me into the corner except for myself. One time I went to a see a punk band play in Portland, OR and a reader walked up to me and said, “What are YOU doing here?”. I thought she just meant in Portland, but she meant at a punk show. In her mind, seeing me in a place that had a mosh pit was a complete disconnect- and she didn’t seem happy about it. I’ve always enjoyed that I love flowery home things as much as I love rough and tumble things, but I wasn’t doing a good job of showing that full picture of myself online. While I didn’t owe anyone that full picture, I was responsible for that disconnect. And if I didn’t like the way it made people look at me, I was responsible for changing that. If you only show people the bubbly happy part of yourself, people will mostly expect you to seem the same in person. But if you show a bit more of your full self online, people will get to know the real you a bit more easily. You may not care about letting people know the real you, and that’s completely fine, but if that’s a goal of yours, the only person responsible for that is you. Every Tweet, Facebook update, Instagram picture, Pin and post is a way for you to share who you are in a fuller sense. So use that power wisely and carefully.

4. You Get Back What You Put Out

One of the biggest things I’ve learned has to do with reciprocity. If you strive to share honest and constructive updates online, you’re putting out a very specific energy that seems to demand the same in kind. When I’ve fallen into negative dips where I’m complaining or ranting, I seem to attract the same. When I update too much that feels work-related or just about updating for the sake of updating, I get the same from other people. But when I strive to put my best self forward, stay constructive and share with a purpose, I get the same sort of sharing back. And nothing makes me happier than connecting with people who are also striving to live authentic and constructive lives online. Does that mean you can never be angry online? Of course not, it just means that you do your best to behave and treat other people online the same way you’d like to be treated. I genuinely like hearing a balance of positive and difficult news. But I rarely, if ever, like hearing someone go on a one-sided rant about something. That’s just my personal preference so I do my best to hold myself to that same guideline.

5. Live for the moment, not the (online) end result

I’ve worked really hard over the past few years to stop photographing, documenting and sharing every thing I do in my life. I found that, for me, it took away from living in the moment and made the people around me feel as though they weren’t the end goal of that event. When I eat with someone, that meal and their conversation is my goal. While I sometimes wish I could share how special or meaningful a given moment was, no photo, status update or post could ever accurately reflect how special a moment in real-life is. And sometimes, it ruins it. I’ve had moments where I was having so much fun with friends or work colleagues that I felt the need to force everyone to stop and take a photo or replicate some silly moment that happened. When I look back at those pictures, I rarely see the spirit of that moment captured accurately. Sometimes you can, but sometimes it’s best to leave that moment in real life and let the online world appreciate the happiness and higher quality of work that comes from you taking a break and enjoying your life outside of the web world a bit.

6. Rules will change and be broken

Yes, this is supposed to be 5 rules, but the 6th rule is that rules will always change and be broken. As you grow and evolve, your needs and comfort level will too. You may go through phases where you pull back a bit and phases where you feel more comfortable sharing more online. My gut rule is that if you feel honest and genuine and calm in that moment of sharing, you’re rarely regret it. So allow yourself the freedom to grow and adapt your online sharing policies as you grow and change yourself.

Suggested For You


  • Fascinating post. And I feel some of the points are relevant to ‘real life’…eg point 3 and presenting a distorted personality online so surprising people when they discover other layers. I think in life those to go around being one dimensional (eg happy and pleasant all the time) must also get frustrated when their moments of sadness or anger come as a shock to others. But like you wrote, the individual is responsible for how they present themselves.

  • @Emily and @Kristin: it’s a tumblr, not a long-form blog, but Ernests (ernests.tumblr.com) is anonymously-authored and a fantastic source for incredible design images.

  • Grace reading your post makes me feel like you are the YOGA of blogging. Thanks for sharing your new found balance and discipline.

  • Wonderful and insightful, I look forward to the other essays to. I have recently been battling with everything in my life being a blogable moment, it does leach the joy a little. And yes the pressure is also very internal, but I do feel my blog is my happy space. Not that I am trying to be perfect, just that is my space to dream free of the cares of the world. You make me question my blogging future, but in a good way. Thankyou for sharing

  • I think these are so true for any profession where you put a big part of yourself into your work, and you put your work out for public interaction or review. I’m a theatre director and this spoke directly to me. Thank you for sharing!

  • Really appreciate your thoughts, Grace. You’ve hit on a handful of issues that I feel in my own online life but have never taken the time to sit down and address. Many thanks.

  • Love this post, very useful for anyone who is thinking about starting a blog, or blogging right now. Hope we can avoid some of the less exciting phases you have gone through by sharing this with us, but I guess we will all have some lessons to learn by ourselves. Thanks for sharing!

  • This is just what I needed to read this morning)
    I must say that you described every stage very accurately! Everything you talk about in your post, I went through myself, but I wouldn’t be capable in putting into words the same way you did.
    Thank you!

  • Love this….I am also trying to find my voice in my many online posts on various blogs and social media outlets. I do put my truth out there as much as I can…but am very aware of the ripple so am very intentional in what I choose to throw into the water of humanity…. You have inspired me to be a bit more naked…. Thank you!

  • I really enjoyed this honest, candid and reflective piece. It is well thought through and a terrific essay of what any on-line author can and should expect when he or she writes in the social media sphere. I’m just getting started and I really appreciate your taking the time to share your experience. Thank you!

  • A lovely post – straight from the heart. I especially liked #5. As a stay at home mom of a two year old I am often struck by the constant pictures & video that other parents take and post of their young ones. Don’t get me wrong, I post plenty of pictures starring my child, but I think its so important to “forget” our phones occasionally. Just this morning, my husband I took our son, Hayes, sledding for the first time. Not one moment was captured…..except the ones we will ALWAYS remember in our minds. :)

Leave a Reply

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.