Mar 23, 2010

Virtual Doesn't Mean Invisible

Almost every week, I'm surprised -- again! -- by a story about online posting gone wrong. But never as surprised as the subjects of these stories, who invariably claim to be shocked that other people actually saw the sexual photos, references to binge drinking and drug use, bathroom humor, snarking, venting, and otherwise not ready for prime time content that they posted on the Internet. This is one of my hobby horses, I know. And I promise to stop talking about it just as soon as it stops happening. But for now, I just keep wondering why people don't get that the content they post publicly will in fact be viewed by . . . the public.

This week's story? Well, there were a few. Most cringe-worthy to me was the engaged couple profiled in the New York Times who like to fight on Facebook, because, as the soon-to-be Mrs. said, "A lot of people aren't with us if we have a fight at home . . . [This way] all of our friends can kind of comment on it." Has the couple considered how all their online sniping looks to readers beyond their social circle? I would guess not, judging from the fact that even their friends think the online fighting is inappropriate. (One bridesmaid complained to the Times about having to spend hundreds of dollars getting ready to be in the wedding when "their whole relationship is falling apart on Facebook.")

Or how about the three prison guards in Nebraska, fired after one said on Facebook that he enjoyed smashing an inmate's face into the ground, and the other two posted supportive comments? The British travel agent fired after complaining about a coworker on Facebook, saying "I swear I will smack the brown-nosing cow in the face before the end of my shift!"? 

Then, there was a conversation I had with a friend who conducts sexual harassment prevention training, who told me that she is routinely met with audience surprise when she points out that harassment and inappropriate behavior can take place via social networking sites. The surprise isn't that there's sexually explicit or biased content on these sites, but that it could get you in trouble at work. These sites are widely seen as part of our private lives, not our professional lives. Even if you're the boss and you've "friended" your reports and coworkers, who are now all invited to view your X-rated photos. Even if you're job hunting and employers Google your name (according to a recent Wall Street Journal column, 85% of hiring managers do), only to find your sexually explicit posts. Even if your company has its own Facebook or MySpace page or Twitter account, and individual employees have joined as fans, friends, or followers -- which means corporate customers can click on over to employee posts (that weren't intended to represent the company). 

What interests me most about these situations is the simultaneous desire to be seen (isn't that the purpose of posting online?) and surprise when it happens, at least beyond the intended audience. I'm using the term "surprise" as a stand-in for what is usually a stronger response: Often, someone whose online post comes back to bite the poster in the posterior expresses anger, affront, even a sense of unfairness or violation that content posted for  friends and like-thinkers was viewed differently -- and maybe used as a basis for judgment --by outsiders and authority figures. The affront seems to come from the lack of control over how posted content is interpreted. The poster wanted others to think he or she was funny, clever, or cool, and is offended to have instead been found crude, insensitive, or mean.

Despite George W. Bush's malaprop references to "the Internets," there's only one -- and I think that might be at the root of the problem. On the Internet, many find a creative outlet, a place to express themselves and engage with a like-minded community. But it's also a tool for job hunting and recruitment, research, shopping, advertising, dating, propaganda, law enforcement, you name it. Our friends can read what we post, but so can our employers, our customers, the cops, our mother's book group, our wedding party, our local prisoners' rights organization, and that brown-nosing cow. So let's be careful out there, people.