As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking a bit of time to read some “craft books” on writing, and the first one I’ve been looking at is Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines. The focus of her book is social media and how writers can use it to create a working “author platform”, but she also touches on other subjects such as traditional vs. indie publishing, marketing, and occasionally a little bit of (related) neuroscience. Yeah, you heard me.
One of the side-topics that has come up in what I’ve read so far (enjoying it so much!) is this idea of ruining your platform without even realizing it. In other words, turning your name to mud by accident. In a world where everything can be re-Tweeted half a million times before you blink, it’s easy for one stupid mistake to go viral and effectively ruin your good name for, well, for good. This doesn’t only apply to writers (or the celebrities we so often see spiraling the metaphorical toilet bowl); it applies to everyone. That’s why I wanted to talk about it today, because this is the kind of thing that everyone should know, but which most people never think about.
I’ve spoken before about how anonymity does not truly exist on the internet and how we should watch what we do and say because it can come back to bite us in the ass. In that previous post I was focused on what I called “The Golden Internet Rule”, which is simply “don’t be a jerk on the internet”. This time I’m not talking specifically about being a jerk, but simply about understanding that whatever you choose to talk about on the internet has now become searchable, findable, and quite possibly eternal.
I’ll give a personal example, because what better way to show people what you mean than by sharing your own morbid embarrassment?
When I was in university, studying to be a technologist, I had ups and downs. I had chosen my path partially on a whim because of a stressful situation (the course I had originally chosen was cancelled two months before the start of the semester, so I had to pick something else quick or simply not go to school). The result was that I often wondered if I’d chosen the right thing, whether or not I should drop out and choose something else, and was I really suited for this kind of career? I kept pressing forward because change is scary, and eventually I found myself in the fourth and final year of program, having an all-out panic attack. It began to occur to me that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I graduated. I didn’t know what kind of jobs I was even qualified for, how I would go about applying for them, where the work would end up taking me, or whether I would even be any good in the field. Sure I’d made pretty great grades in school, but the real world is a lot different from the class world. I didn’t know what kind of work I would be doing, but I was pretty confident it would not be writing short lines of computer code to set tiny LED lights to flash on and off at timed intervals.
One night when I was particularly stressed, I went online to a forum that I frequented in those days. I wrote a long post about my concerns, my worries, my stress level. I ranted about things like “wasting time and money on a degree I don’t even understand” and how I would disappoint my parents if I suddenly up and decided to do something different, and how I was terrified of the idea that I might have to move away from home for a job and “why oh why didn’t I choose a career path with a clearer future?!”
It was a rant born of stress, passion, and an overwhelming desire for someone to wrap their virtual arms around me and say that it was going to be okay. I did get that virtual hug from my virtual companions, but I also made a teeny tiny mistake. Within the confines of that rant, I used my full, real name. It wasn’t a concern because most of the folks on this forum knew my real name anyway, but in this particular post I wrote one line that described what my diploma would look like when I graduated, with my full name in the center of it. I added that bit in to make a point concerning my rant, but I didn’t consider what adding my full name in actually did to that post.
Haven’t figured it out yet?
It made me instantaneously and easily locatable on Google.
For the most part this was a non-issue. I was a nobody that no one cared about. Who would even go looking up my name on Google, and if they did find my post, why would they care? At least that’s what I thought until someone did happen to Google my name and did click on the link that led them to my post. It was my uncle. I can’t recall the reason that he searched my name in the first place, but when he did he happened upon my post, read it, and subsequently wrote me a very long, very concerned email.
I was mortified.
My uncle was just trying to be helpful and calm my concerns, and he was very sweet. That’s not the mortifying part. The mortifying part was that he read my post in the first place. When I wrote that post it was with the intentions that only my internet friends ever see it. I just wanted a little bit of anonymous support from people who I never had to deal with face-to-face. For good or ill, I’ve never been the kind of person who can share their pains and emotions with their closest loved ones, so when one of those close loved ones found my whining, complaining, melodramatic post I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. And while in this case I had the opportunity to go back and change what I’d written (posts on this forum were editable), in another place I may have been stuck with what I’d written forever.
This is what we’re dealing with when we put ourselves out there on the internet, and my example is absolutely nothing compared to what some people have put themselves through. Every one of you reading this right now has seen at least one photo of someone who uploaded their pic on a social network site only to realize later that there was something excruciatingly embarrassing about it. One particular photo that comes to mind is of a teenage girl who took a “selfie” of herself and uploaded it to Facebook before noticing that her vibrator was sitting in plain view in the corner of the pic. As if that’s not mortifying enough, before she noticed it dozens of people had copied it and posted it elsewhere. The picture went viral. Because this girl failed to take a few seconds to actually look at the photo before posting it, she is now an internet meme that will never die.
Whatever you say, whatever you post, whatever you do, it only takes one opportunist to back-up your mistake on his computer before you can backtrack. In this way the internet is forever. Ask anyone who has ever found themselves depicted as a cruel jape on sites like 9gag. It doesn’t matter how much you beg or cry or scream, you can’t erase something from the internet once people have decided to use it at your expense. Even if it is an extreme example and you have grounds for legal action, it only takes one person to store the quote/pic/post away to whip out again at a later date. And the bigger a deal you make out of trying to abolish a bad rep, the bigger a deal people will make out of making sure that it never dies.
This is why we have to be careful, not only when dealing with touchy issues like religion and politics, or when letting our tempers get the best of us online. We also have to be careful with everything we say or do on the internet. Before you say or post or upload, step back and think. Think about how you would feel if your parents (or your children) happened across your post. Think about the repercussions if your employer saw that pic. Think about the veritable shit storm you might inadvertently stir up with your status update.
Basically, just THINK. It’s something we don’t do enough of these days, and with the Internet playing the part of devil’s advocate, one stupid mistake can mean that you name is mud for a very, very long time.
Have you ever said or did something on the internet that came back on you in an embarrassing or painful way? Do you know anyone else who has had to deal with this kind of unintentional reputation ruining? Thoughts and comments?