When we read or watch something online, we’re not quite the same person as we when we decide to share it.

No one knows this better than Bit.ly, the link shortener that has a front row seat on the world’s realtime data, especially content shared over social networks. Hilary Mason, bit.ly’s chief scientist, presented insights based on her research, comparing our online browsing behavior to footprints on a beach.

Exploring those footprints in aggregate reveals remarkable trends. On a given day the most popular content people share among their social networks gives a very unique perspective into human events. For example, looking at click activity inside Tunisia last spring showed the revolution in progress.

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What was most fascinating, however, was that what we’re sharing and what we’re reading are radically different. Mason compared our browsing habits to the cat in the chicken hat. “On top is what you read.” said Mason. “On the bottom is your identity.” While we’d like our reading habits to be heroic, they rarely are.

The issue has come up again and again as music sharing sites like Spotify “scrobble” our music choices, broadcasting the songs we listen to into our Facebook feed. Based on what we explicitly share, our taste in music or Web content is refined, progressive and eclectic. But when you look at what we’re actually listening to, it’s clear we’re happy to enjoy the same link bait and pop music as everyone else.

Wrapping up her short talk , Mason said that it’s important that we continue to safeguard people’s right to browse the Web privately, while letting people put on a superhero face in public.

Mason is also a co-founder of HackNY, a non-profit organization that connects talented student hackers from around the world with startups in NYC.

Image via: Cheezeburger Network