Personal P.R.

In early June of 2010, a group of young people broke into the Albuquerque Zoo and got up close and personal with a number of the animals there. How do we know? Because they took pictures of their encounters and posted them on Facebook.

I will pass over the obvious danger of kissing a giraffe on the nose while taking a flash photograph of the event. What amazes me–yet again, for this happens all the time–is that someone did something illegal, then not only documented it but posted the documentation for God and everybody to see.

I have been writing about computers for over 25 years and made email and other electronic communications the subject of my 2004 Ph.D. dissertation in cultural anthropology. I might have thought that in all this time people would have gotten smarter about how they commmunicate electronically, but with the advent of social media apparently the opposite has occured. People get fired from their jobs for ill-judged Tweets, people end up not getting hired in the first place because prospective employers are only a Google away from seeing high-res pix of a job candidate’s last debauch in San Diego, people break up because of the Hansel and Gretel-like trail of pink bits that a cheating paramour leaves, in spite of all precaution, for an aggrieved partner to see.

Used to be only actors and politicians had a public image, which they hired and paid P.R. agents copious amounts to manage. Now, anyone who is on
the Web has an image. And yet most of us fail to manage it.

My stars, some could write a book about the subject–and maybe I will, you don’t know. In the meantime, though, what I truly wish everyone would keep in mind as a first principle is just this: Anything that leaves your computer, iPad, or cell phone may be seen by anybody and everybody in the world.

It might not be, especially if it’s uninteresting or unobjectionable. But if you snap a picture of your naughty bits and send it in a text message to a prospective partner, that picture can be forwarded (with your name on it) from Tiburon to Timbuktu. (This event will be made much more likely, of course, if you have a nasty break-up with said partner.) If you forward a tasteless, racist email to thirty of your closest friends, it can be forwarded and forwarded (with your name on it) until it reaches someone who’ll take exception to it, and if you’re a politician and the exception-taker is in the media, Heaven help you. If you post twenty-one pictures of yourself getting blind stinking drunk on Jello shots for your 21st birthday, no matter how tightly you lock down your Facebook security those pictures are still available to be saved and passed around (with your name on them) so that you cannot claim surprise when the East Taboga Public School District decides you are not a suitable candidate to teach Civics to their 9th graders.

I could state all this more simply as a corollary to the initial principle of what I call the Digital Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. In this case, do no harm to yourself. Before you click ‘Send’ ask yourself: Is there any way this could jump up and bite me in the butt later? If the answer is ‘yes,’ no matter how unlikely a ‘yes,’ just click ‘Delete’ instead. After all, you’ve got an image to uphold.

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