Over-sharing in an era of peak connectedness is common. Unfiltered emotion and half-developed theses are routinely tossed onto social media platforms with great ease. If we’re so quick to share, why, then, is there still a stigma surrounding unsharing?
We’re still growing accustomed to social media and Web 2.0, even two decades after the introduction of the Geocities blog platform, leading eventually to the beautiful self-publishing tool I’m using right now (WordPress). Beautiful, but potentially deadly. The danger in self-publishing is that there is no editing or censor mechanism that can account for one’s poor judgement. While social technology is nearing perfection, its users, myself included, are far from it.
Followers, particularly on Twitter, have remarked to me on a number of occasions that I frequently delete tweets. I’ve never denied this. In my view, it’s not only acceptable to regularly delete posts on social platforms like WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others, but I actively encourage it with friends and clients, particularly those who need to consider PR over years, decades even. As a writer, it is incredibly uncomfortable to leave what amounts to tiny little rough drafts on the internet every day.
What needs to be appreciated, before deleting anything from the internet, is that nothing is ever reallydeleted from the internet. Between caching, screenshots and (ridiculously cool!) tools like The Wayback Machine, snapshots of the web are being taken all the time and, from a PR perspective, those snapshots can easily be used against you or your organization. To be on the safe side, just assume that nearly everything you put online can one day be made public. And yes, that includes private messages on social sites like Facebook (they already target ads for you based on the content of your public posts and private chats) and even email platforms like Gmail. Not that either are insecure necessarily, I use both frequently, but it’s just safer to assume that there are no secrets in the digital world, as organizations like Anonymous and Wikileaks have demonstrated rather thoroughly.
If nothing can be truly deleted, privacy is an illusion and secrecy is dead, why bother deleting things from social platforms like Twitter? Two words: Public record.
Most of your skeptics, haters and enemies aren’t likely quite as, um, determined as mine, and most embarrassing or regretful things you post online will probably go undetected. Chances are, your mistakes won’t appear in one of The Huffington Post’s “stupid-people-on-the-internet” stories — but know that it’s entirely possible. It then becomes a question of what crumbs of content you want to be directly and unquestionably associated to your name or brand online. For better or worse, one’s Twitter or Facebook feed is now an important part the process by which others judge your social capital and character.
Everyone has things online that they regret putting there. Consider deleting some of it. Don’t assume it will necessarily come back to haunt you — with the volumes of data every person publishes day after day, that scenario could be nightmarish to some. More likely, your followers will just see an offending post and either forget and go on with their lives, or retain only a vaguely negative impression of something kind of offensive you may have posted that one time, but we’re not really sure because it was a while ago (this morning) and we’ve since moved on to the waterskiiing squirrel.
Too many of those vaguely negative impressions can be damaging for a brand. Though most won’t be subjected to that GOTCHA! moment that keeps political pundits like myself awake at night, it’s important to always consider the vastness and permanence of the internet before adding anything to it. Whenever possible, have a trusting friend or colleague (or communications professional, wink wink) vet anything you put online that could be construed as remotely contentious. Before posting something that might upset someone, I’ll often run it by Jessica, Jared or another colleague, or at the very least think to myself, “what would my media company bosses or lawyer warn me not say here,” and that typically gives me a sense of the safest angle to take (I’m privileged to have had editors and program directors who preach restraint and politeness rather than censorship).
Unfortunately, some may not share my views on the banality of human error online. It only takes a few characters in a tweet to lead to a defamation lawsuit (justified or not — be conscious, as an individual, of lawsuits of the SLAPP variety which limit free speech), particularly in Canada where we take slander a bit more seriously than in America. These are factors that anyone with a public brand should consider and, these days, that’s pretty much everyone, to one degree or another.
For my political opponents, some of whom I can see read me religiously (remember: privacy is dead), la question qui tue: Have I, in my edgier moments, ever defamed someone online?
I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’m going to assume that I probably haven’t, not only for my own peace of mind, but because I’m, again, privileged to have undergone some intense training from a number of experienced media professionals, starting as a teen, on how to craft appropriate and lawful opinions. Some of my first assignments in news reporting were on the so-called “Sponsorship Scandal” and, needless to say, lawsuits were flying. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits (and death) countless times, but no one yet (knock on wood) has had a case. If I feel that pushing the envelope is necessary, I try to be responsible and calculated in any form of media — and my new company and profession is accelerating my more diplomatic approach (if you disagree with my positions, politely email me and maybe I’ll even apologize and change my view!).
I’ve been confronted with screenshots of deleted posts before and my reaction is typically a variation of, “and…what’s your point? I know what I said. No, it’s not as bad as you think. No, I didn’t mean it like that. Here are other things I’ve said on the matter that clarifies my views.” There’s also apologizing. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing for an error in judgment and it can often nip a PR nightmare in the bud. Most often, though, I delete things because I just don’t need it to be there, or there’s a spelling mistake and I don’t want grammatical errors to dog me for all eternity (reposting after deleting something on Twitter can look a bit desperate, so I don’t bother since tweets are fleeting — and we’re still waiting for the ‘edit’ function that might never come).
Deleting my own posts is not an exercise in rewriting my past or avoiding defamation lawsuits; the act of deleting after the fact can, unfortunately, be interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt. I’m writing this blog to encourage others to be open about deleting things, not necessarily out of guilt, but because social media has become so integrated into our lives that the shear volume of data associated with our names online can so easily misrepresent a person or brand’s essential qualities and messages. Just because something is shared doesn’t mean it’s something worth keeping. Your profile pages are your introduction to the world. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with putting your best foot forward and, occasionally, putting your foot in your mouth. We’re only human.
Dan Delmar is the managing partner of Provocateur Communications, a host/commentator with CJAD 800 Montreal and contributor with The National Post.