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.

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  • Great post, Grace. I’m just getting started in blogging as an extension of my freelancing career, and I’m realizing that when it’s my personal voice (and not a magazine brand’s voice to hide behind) it’s a lot of navigation of who I am and how I want to come across, how to share but not overshare, how to be honest but not offend. Glad you’re in a better place!

  • This is fantastic! You are exactly right!! Just about the only difference for me is sharing my faith. I was so beaten up and bruised from my first attempts to share that I recoiled and didnt say a word. But my forever eternity and that one moment of negative feedback just werent comparable anymore, and I knew that my soul needed to share. Even though I have lost readers, I have gained self respect. :)

  • What a fantastically eloquent and honest post. I suppose after a while we are drawn to the same authenticity we want for ourselves, but getting there is sometimes not so clear. I’ve felt that same arc and just came back to my blog and my work feeling refreshed, like I understand some things more clearly. Anyway, thank you for this!

  • I’d like to look at some anonymous design blogs for inspiration on how to blog under the radar…I just don’t feel the need to inject my face or name into the stratosphere. Are there any anonymous blogs that come to mind? Thanks.

    • Emily

      Poppytalk was anon for ages- I think Jan on recently started using her name. But that was years later. Great example of blogging without a given face or name but rather a blog/brand name.


  • great post, and your tips are spot on! more than anything what i got out of this, though, is feeling like i’m not alone in being super phase-y about my online tendencies! way different inclinations at different points throughout the years.

  • Really, really loving these more personal series of posts. Has anyone ever suggested that you write a book one day? I know that sounds stupid because you’ve already written and published a BEAUTIFUL book, but I would love to read a memoir-like book from you one day. You have a really lovely way of expressing yourself through words.

  • Great thought provoking post. I have been thinking a lot lately about how often living through social media creates an extrinsic determination of self worth. By measuring likes/views/comments etc we put a number and value to how “good” something is which in turn reflects on how the creator may view them self- more likes/ pageviews/ positive feedback= increased sense of self worth or value. This post helps defy that and reminds us all to live for the now and to make choices and live life for oneself, not through the feedback given to us by others.

  • I really enjoyed this post. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you at a punk show:) My favorites are #’s 4-6: You Get Back What You Put Out, Live For the Moment and Rules Will Change and Be Broken. I think it’s valuable to keep some of your personal life private from the online world. I’ve seen some freakishly personal moments shared by friends and while it’s sometimes funny or sweet, it can also be outright weird to see their view from the tub or a photo of their significant other opening a birthday present. Some moments should be left as intimate in my opinion.

  • I always come away from your posts feeling like you are speaking directly to me and at the same time, am learning something about you, the world at large and me, too. Thank you for these!

  • Thanks, Grace. This was a great read and reminded me of my own journey to becoming comfortable on the Internet.

    As a side note: I’ve been finding more and more that my favourite blogs are those whose authors are honest and aren’t afraid to engage in meaningful discussion. Looking at beautiful objects is great, but these posts put everything into perspective and make it seem more real. (If that makes any sense.) Thanks D*S!

  • Thank you for your honest perspective on life-online. The age of social media/branding can be very strange at times. I see the benefits of it but I also treasure the time I had early in my career when it didn’t exist. I often feel like social media can make our lives seem like show & tell back in kindergarten days. If one isn’t accustomed to having attention it can be very uncomfortable. My constant questions to myself before I post: Will this be helpful? Does this bring beauty/light/life to this space? Thanks Grace for the beauty/light/life you bring to your readers. K

  • Love you, Grace! It’s been a privilege to witness your evolution over the years. You always live up to your name! Xox, Katie

  • Thanks for sharing, I am getting ready to start my own blog, and this is such great insight.
    On another note, can I ask about your dog? What type is it? I have a dog I rescued that looks identical!

  • Love your honesty and appreciate the lessons. I just started blogging about the process of paying off debt and it is super hard to navigate how much is too much to share especially when it comes to such a personal private topic like finances.

    Thank you Grace.

  • Great, honest post and perspective on this topic. As a semi-new online small business owner, I often wonder where that line is…it’s a constant internal dialogue for me when trying to think of ways to grow while not being annoying or pushy (or whiny). So I end up going through phases of over-share and under-share. It’s sometimes hard to find that happy medium, but your post touches on what’s most important: being authentic and genuine. Which, I think, is how we should be in real life as well. And when I think of the people and blogs that I love to follow most online (D*S included!), they embody that spirit. Great post, thanks for sharing :)

  • Wonderful, helpful, and honest advice, thank you. I think this is good advice for anyone who has a presence online (almost everyone!) and not just bloggers. It’s good advice for facebook posts as well. Thank you so much for this. It’s especially prescient for me as I’ve just begun posting daily on my own blog and am careful about how I might be perceived. Perfectly timed for me, thank you again!

  • My cousin told me about you and your site in 2008 and I’ve been smitten ever since…thru the good, bad, high, low, house, home and Harvey! Keep doing what you do! You’re fabulous!

  • Grace, I’ve been following you almost daily for over eight years now. Along with one of the other bloggers you mentioned…. Both of your voices are amazing, in different ways and I love and see it as an honor to be privy to what you all share. It’s not an easy task to walk that line, and to have all these people “know” you. I’m sure you got over the “creep” factor years ago of all of us lurkers (I do post very once in awhile, but still.)… But, Thank you.

  • Interesting parallel to some thoughts I’ve had lately. Six-seven years ago I discovered a few (small) blogs and started my own. For years I read those, and still do. Then it felt like everything ramped up – and I found I had a larger laundry list of blogs I felt like I should read because everyone seemed to be reading them. Then many of them had voices that started to sound alike – and advertisers and sponsors really started creeping in.

    Don’t get me wrong – I can appreciate the fact that blogs can be a business, and the best ones have navigated the path from simple online journal to thriving business better than others. (This place is one of them.) But the number of them on my must-read list has dwindled. I find that the anonymous ones – like Emily asked about – are my favorite. (Defining anonymous as a blog that’s just out there, without ads or sponsors or a tremendous focus on the writer, but rather, the subject.) I really feel connected to people this way, and I value the same kind of connections I’ve found along the way with my blog.

    So I would say to Emily that there are SO many great (anonymous, smallish design blogs out there). They take a little while to find, but they are gems when you find them. Occasionally I’ll ask my readers to let me know who they are really enjoying, and I’m always rewarded with good independent reads to add to my list (and my circle of friends). I’ve culled the amount of big design blogs to a small number of the best of them, and when the big ones relate to readers on a more personal and intimate level than you might expect – well, that’s a treat as well.

  • Very. Excellent. Post.
    Thank you for taking the time to sift through the sequence of your passages and share your evolution. It rings true for my experiences as well, and I bet, many of your readers who have blogged for awhile will find it so relevant. Great Post.

  • Thanks for the insight Grace. Listening to your podcasts and reading your blog you get a real sense of who you are so understanding where to draw the line is really interesting. I’m constantly struggling with trying to achieve that right balance especially with a young child in tow, but I always try to remember that at the end of my days I certainly won’t wish I’d blogged more, but rather that I’d lived and experienced more, so try to hold that in my thoughts every day.

  • This is a great post, so glad you wrote it, and good to know that bloggers, the people we look up to for inspiration and trends are actually just like us readers, with issues and emotions which make us who we are. Loved it.

  • Thank you for sharing these bits of wisdom, Grace. As a new-ish blogger, I’m learning a lot and also feel, at times, in over my head. I appreciate your sincerity!

  • Grace, that was a great essay, and I appreciate the deep and soul-searching thought process that brings you to the writing of these posts.
    I also feel that you manage to maintain the very high quality and professionalism of this site at the same time that you and the D*S staff share your multi-faceted and very real human side. I follow a few other sites for a variety of reasons, but this place just seems like home to me. Thanks!

  • Wonderful post Grace! I’ve been following your blog for a few years now and I can definitely see a (positive) difference from over the last year. It seems more real and I love that you seem happier with being yourself. I personally think it’s awesome that after attending a hardcore punk show, you want to come home to flowery sheets. I think I, along with many of your other readers, can totally relate even better to someone like that because we are all so multi-faceted, and that’s why a modern design blog is so appealing to us to begin with. You are fabulous and I can’t wait to see what changes happen on Design Sponge over the next year and beyond!

  • Thank you! All of us new-ish bloggers can really glean from your experience. Thank you for being HONEST and going above and beyond to help others in their own journey. You’re the best! PS so it your book :-)

  • Hi Grace! Yet another great post. I’ve been a reader of Design*Sponge for several years, and I’ve always liked it–but I just wanted to say that recently you have been really knocking it out of the park for me. I love the thoughtful yet balanced injection of more personal content into the blog. I’ve also been listening to After The Jump and recommending it to my close friends. It seems like you really put a lot of thought into everything you do, and I really appreciate that so much.

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience about living online. It is very helpful especially for a relatively new blogger like me, still trying to figure out my online identity.

  • This is a great post. It’s full of honesty and advice. And you’re so right about finding a balance between personal-self and online-self…it’s tough. I feel like posting things on a blog, or any social media site really, is a lot like living in front of a window and you never know who’s looking in.

  • This post reminds me of a concert I went to a couple of years ago where the lead singer stopped, noticed hundreds of camera phones filming him, and asked when did we start documenting everything instead of experiencing something? I love how your blog tackles these bigger issues because design is not just pretty products, it can address these larger social questions. Thanks, d*sponge!

  • To echo what everyone else is saying, this is a beautifully written and extremely relevant post. It’s a perfect example of how to be your honest self without sharing a lot of personal life details :) Thanks so much for sharing this valuable experience, Grace! I really appreciate it.

  • Excellent advice, Grace. Thank you for being so honest. I’ve learned to blog by the philosophy: make it personal, but not private. I was divorced and remarried and didn’t share my experience because I didn’t want it up for discussion or judgment by people I didn’t even know. Thanks for writing this post and for doing what you do!

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

    I can so relate! My friends and I started blogging at the same time. It became really bad where they would ask me to eat out with them. It became clear to me that they wanted to have another person with them to split the bill. They would go to cafes and restaurants with cameras around their necks. I would go when I’m hungry but I couldn’t really eat the food as soon as it’s served because they would take photos of it. Socializing was tedious during those times. Good thing I saw right through it early on.


  • I know that for some people it’s not good to bring religiousity into the discussion, but I enjoy this talk by David Bednar about “Things as They Really Are.” http://www.lds.org/ensign/2010/06/things-as-they-really-are
    It’s a tricky balance to live life online and in the real world. I love what you do for work- we all benefit from it. But, as life gets farther and farther away from being “real” I do feel like we’re all making a conscious effort to deliniate real and not real.

  • i’ve witnessed the arc of your online life so far as a reader of d*s for so many years now. i’m curious about that period in the “early-middle” when you started sharing only the happy. though you regret that self-censorship, wasn’t that a period in which d*s became very popular? it’s frustrating to think that you may not have found the same level of success in your business if you had made some of your honest thoughts public. do you think that’s true?

    and now, on the other side of that self-censored period, it’s wonderful to hear an even more empowered, self-aware, and reflective voice. i’m really glad you made it through. all these years, i felt like i could always hear “grace” in your posts. and i think your readers know and love design*sponge because they hear and value your personal voice and opinions.

    all i can say is, i’m glad you’re still here. i’m glad you didn’t burn out or bail on blogging. and i’m happy you’re keeping it real!

    • rebecca

      i don’t think it’s possible to know if the site would have been more or less successful if i’d been slightly more well-rounded online. all i know is i’m glad i’m still here, still get to have the job i love and get to be myself. i’m thankful for all of it :)


  • Grace, this post is wonderful and I think will help a lot of people. It’s funny, long ago I used to read d*s daily, then there was a phase where it was all sort of hyper-happy and I didn’t like it because it felt disingenuous to me. I stopped reading for quite a while. Then recently I found myself back here and really loving the new direction. All I can say is you are a brave soul, and best of luck on your future discoveries.

  • i finally had the opportunity to get online and read this. #5 particularly resonated with me – an important reminder of something that i’ve become increasingly bad at in the age of social media

    i’ve been a reader here for several years and i love everything that your blog has become. you shine through in all of your work and you’ve truly made design’sponge a special place for all of us.

    all the best to you and hope and turk always

  • Inspiring and honest post. I especially like rule #1. It amazes me how many bloggers are offended if you have a differing viewpoint. I certainly understand mean or unkind comments are totally unnecessary, and there should be a level of politeness and common courtesy, on all sides. If a blog is going to HAVE a comment section,they should be willing to accept all comments, otherwise, it is just fishing for compliments. Keep up the great work Grace

  • I love how honest and refreshing your post was. It is hard to come across as who you are without revealing too much of your private soul. A little mystery is always good in my opinion.

  • 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.

  • Really enjoying this series of personal essays. This topic is always on my mind. So hard to find the balance I craze between being personal and genuine and not self consciously editing to just the good stuff.

  • 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. :)