I’ve read a lot of theories about why people say, frankly, dumb things online, but I’ve decided for myself that what causes things like that to spill out isn’t necessarily dumb at all; it’s just an honest mistake:
People think they’re talking, when in fact they’re publishing.
Here’s what I mean: Do you “publish” to your friends’ Facebook profiles, or are you just “talking” to your friends when you go back and forth in comment threads? Do you consider strings of emails “conversations” or official matters of record?
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t matter what you think. Once something that can reasonably be attributed to you has been cited by someone else, you’re on the hook for it, and what’s more, you don’t even get to decide anymore what you really meant in the first place.
Part of any confusion here is the way social networks have phrased things: This is MySpace. “What’s on your mind?” “What’s happening?” It’s all very conversational and personal, which is more or less the point. Unlike conversation, though, there’s really no way to take something back once you’ve “said” it.
For instance, if you drunkenly utter something offensive at a party, the worst you can expect (barring the presence of any recording devices) is probably for someone to hold a grudge against you, which to a third party would just be a case of he said/she said. Get slammed and post to Facebook, though, and you could be in for a ride. There’s no he said/she said because any third party can literally point back to your exact words, on the exact date and time you posted them (Hi, Timeline!). If you’re lucky, you can delete a post like that before (a) anyone sees it, (b) anyone takes a screenshot of it and (c) before Google archives it forever and ever.
This is why it’s publishing, not talking
What social networks don’t make great mention of — they want you to share, remember, not to hold back — is that by “talking” to your friends, you’re actually making a record which you are potentially legally and figuratively liable for.
Keep this in mind, too: If you say something slanderous to a friend, it’s not necessarily likely that what you said will be repeated verbatim a thousand times over. For one thing, the telephone game, and for another, refer to my he said/she said comment. However, if you publish something libelous to a social network, it’s entirely believable that what you shared, even if you intended it to be “private,” could go viral and be attributed back to you via link or screenshot. (To my recollection, the broad definitions at this link cover the differences between slander and libel pretty well. Set me straight if that’s incorrect or if you have a better link.)
Don’t feel obligated to clam up, but do be smart
The point of this post isn’t to dissuade anyone from posting to a social network. It’s rather the opposite — I love social networks. People should, however, know what they’re getting into, and I don’t know that most social networks out there have done a very good job of being upfront about that. (Fine print does not count in my book.)
The main thing to keep in mind is that the things you say while sitting on the couch with two or three of your closest friends are not the things you should probably publish to a social network. I have two rules, which I try to stick to rather ardently:
- Don’t post anything I wouldn’t say out loud during a job interview.
- If a Tweet, turn of phrase or status update seems “so good I just have to post it” write it down, wait 15 minutes and read it back before deciding to post.
(Quick note on No. 2: It comes from this phrase one of my professors used in journalism school called “baby puppies.” Baby puppies were those phrases/headlines/whatever that you thought up and became so enamored with that you ended up writing an entire piece around them, just to fit them into your writing. Obviously, doing so could eff up an otherwise good piece pretty quick.)
Lastly, remember this: More so than in real life, you have a real opportunity to craft who you want to be on a social network. You can look back at what you posted, how it read and how other people reacted to it. Use that. Don’t just throw random thoughts and posts up in an effort to, I don’t know, “talk.” Think about what you’re posting and craft a personality for yourself that you’ll be able to look back on and be proud of.