Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Welcome to the Panopticon, little author -- Jules

Or, "Post in haste, repent at leisure." One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given about the online world was back when I was a wee newbie; I was told not to post in anger. Write it if I must, but then leave it. For at least ten minutes, preferably overnight. Come back and look at it when calmed down, and ask myself, "Do I really want to send that?"

This was in the days before Google, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Alta Vista ruled the search engines. And when a search engine company called Deja News was causing consternation by archiving and indexing the casual conversation on a system called USENET, making it possible to retrieve and read posts that had been made years earlier in the expectation that what was said was ephemeral, the online equivalent of spoken words, gone once the conversation was over. There had always been small specialist archives, but Deja News made it possible for someone to call up the entirety of a person's posting history, see what they said on any subject, and to whom they said it. Casual, semi-private conversation was no longer either casual or semi-private.

Why does this matter? Because the net has a funny effect on people. It dehumanises the social transaction, makes it easy to forget that those are real people on the other end of the wire. Or it simply insulates people from the consequences of their actions. And thus it becomes easy to say things that you'd never say to someone's face, or that you'd never say in front of a camera recording your words for posterity. Things you might find embarrassing to have quoted back to you at a later date.

People have long memories, and it's neither nice nor wise to insult them unnecessarily. But machines have longer memories still, and back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we were starting to understand what that meant. What goes on the net, stays on the net. You cannot take back your words once they've been said. They remain frozen in time, on some storage medium somewhere, and you can never, ever be quite sure that they won't return to haunt you. With datestamps and IP addresses to prove that yes, it was you who said them.

You can take down the webpage or blog post you wrote when you were drunk and angry, but Google cache will continue to show it to the world for a few hours or days or weeks. And archive.org may well have it in permanent archives. You can ask them to remove it, and they will, eventually. In the meantime, people will have been making screen shots. If you comment on someone else's blog, you're just going to have to hope that it's one that allows you to delete your own posts, and that it's not set to email copies of comments to the blog owner.

You can try to keep things private. Locked LiveJournal posts? Well, there was that episode when someone offered a useful service that just happened to ask people to login using their LJ password. And a couple of months later, the owners had enormous fun publicly posting the contents of locked posts they'd gained access to because a friend of the poster had subscribed to this service. Private bulletin boards get hacked. Oh, and that private mailing list may be exposed when some virus scoops up the contents of someone's hard drive, and starts emailing it to random addresses. I've been on the receiving end of such virus-forwarded emails, and it took a formal complaint to the infectee's ISP to get them to clean up their computer. Private tantrums are much, much better than public, but you can't assume that they'll stay private.

None of this means that you must be a saint at all times, never saying anything controversial or nasty, not even in passive-aggressive fashion or in a private forum. After all, I'm not known for my shy and retiring nature online. You'll go nuts, and you'll be boring. And people will forgive a lot, if you make an honest apology for something you regret in the cold light of morning. But own your words. Because they will surely own you, come the day you feel a need to deny them.

Welcome to the Panopticon, little author. Where there are a million cameras watching you, each and every one of them recording you for posterity. Try not to show your knickers in public too often.

[No, this isn't aimed at anyone in particular. I've been meaning to write something along these lines for months, wrote the first draft over a month ago, and have been sitting on it ever since, waiting for the opportunity to post it on a quiet day when nobody was going to take it personally. I think this roughly translates as "when hell freezes over", so it's going up today.]


Jennifer McKenzie said...

I try and own my words. I do have to remind myself that EVERYTHING I post is possible fodder.
Oh, and Instant Messaging isn't safe either. Somehow, people have figured out how to get these too.
When I found THAT out I was a little nervous. I throw a lot of tantrums on my IM.
I use the old technology for my rants. The telephone.

Anonymous said...

>>I throw a lot of tantrums on my IM. <<

Huh...we won't even talk about what I've done on IM. ;-) LOL.

Totally off-subject, but has anyone else seen this? My son sent the link to me this morning. Makes me sick.


Anonymous said...

Jules, you are right--there will never be a time without drama going on somewhere around here.

But it's particularly funny *ahem* appropriate right now...

kirsten saell said...

I'm waiting for the flame-war to begin, Jules. You know a shit-storm always starts whenever anyone with a level head implies people ought to be civil and well-behaved online. If no one takes umbrage at your post, I'm going to be seriously disappointed!

Jules Jones said...

If nobody takes umbrage, I shall assume that someone's been going around romance fandom with a tranquilliser dart gun. I'd rather not start a flame war, but the fact that this post has been brewing for some months without me seeing an opportunity to get it posted without starting a flame war suggests it's a post that's needed.

Teddy Pig said...

Oh now Jules, I have never said anything I have lived to regret....



Actually, I freely admit to being n opinionated asshole who sticks his foot in his mouth at times. But... If you give me something to think about I promise I will try to think.

So few people are wrong these days. I guess I shall be the imperfect dinosaur I am.

Anonymous said...

Good advice to EVERYONE on the net, not just authors, Jules. Being able to post 'anonymously', even if your IP is logged means being able to talk out your ass without worrying about fall out.

And even those who pretend to be exactly as they really are- aren't. Not generally in real life. They may be snarkalicious geniuses on the web, but in real life, they probably nod and look at the ground.

When I was young, it used to be the gossip mill. Now, it's the internet. Kind of funny, when you think about it. The internet is one gigantic, massive, enormous... small town :)


Jules Jones said...

Good advice to EVERYONE on the net, not just authors

Indeed. I've been careful about what I say online from long before I was a professional author, even if I've not always followed my own advice at all times. Amongst other things, I have quite deliberately *never* publicly identified my day job employer, because they'd be entitled to be annoyed with me if my behaviour online became associated with their name.