Public anywhere is public everywhere.

There are three parallel stories flowing past me via Tweetdeck and on Friendfeed right now: One story is about Facebook and their hubristic attempt to declare everyone’s personal information public. Another story is a librarian debating whether it’s OK to write a blog post containing tweets from library users with public accounts. Third is this story about the poor student who had a harsh appraisal of her posted to the internet by her pseudonymous advisor. This blog, named Synthesis, exists precisely to synthesize meaning from these seemingly unconnected events.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about what I had learned in my previous job. It was a thoughtful post where I wrote about some great experiences I had and some rather disappointing ones, and my purpose in writing it was to update my small community of friends and professional acquaintances about the changes in my life and professional status. When Genomeweb linked to my post, I was surprised and delighted. After all, the whole point of keeping a weblog instead of a diary is for other people to read it. I’ve begun to notice a concerning trend, however, of people assuming that content they post to the small community of people they know on social networks is like a whisper – that there’s an implicit assumption that the intended audience will keep the content to themselves and not talk about it to others. This is entirely the wrong way to think about this, and failure to understand this point is setting yourself up for serious trouble later on.

Let’s take the case of BittersweetGirl first. She became upset when Inside Higher Ed linked to her blog. She wrote:

I don’t think IHE knows what it is like to be one of those linked blogs — and it can be disconcerting and sometimes quite upsetting. If you have a humble little blog like mine, to suddenly see a dramatic spike in readers — in numbers that far outstrip the usual blog traffic — is unsettling. There are some bloggers who cultivate a big readership and crave celebrity status, but not everyone strives for that.

This I can understand. The feeling is similar to the feeling you get when you suddenly notice the room has gotten quiet and everyone is looking at you. Instead of taking this as a lesson, however, BittersweetGirl (whose real name is probably not that hard to find) blames IHE for linking to her.

But, what’s worse is that IHE doesn’t seem to recognize that there are some blog posts on topics appropriate for general consumption but some on topics that are deeply personal, maybe even painful…I think IHE may need to be informed of the consequence of their practice and encouraged to be more discerning about what posts they link for their readers.

This is really unfortunate, because if she had learned from her experience instead of trying to blame someone, perhaps she wouldn’t have subsequently posted the following about how she doesn’t think a graduate student she’s advising will be successful:

Jane is not making the progress she needs to make — I can no longer say with any confidence that she can finish her degree in the time frame we had planned — and, obviously, there are serious consequences for the next stage of her career.

Now that this particular opinion of hers has been published not just here, and at Dr. Isis’s blog, but at Technorati and Google and ten thousand other web spiders, it’s part of Jane’s permanent record. BittersweetGirl may blame the people who linked to her if or when her negative public appraisal of Jane affects Jane’s career, but she’s seriously misled to think that posting that on the public web was ok in the first place, pseudonym or not. I’m pointing this out because it’s clear that BittersweetGirl doesn’t understand the ramifications of what she’s done. As a further sign of her apparent cluelessness, she’s disabled comments on the IHE-linked post. If she hadn’t, I might have just left a comment instead of writing a whole blog post about it, but this post needed to be written.

The musings of the non-pseudonymous librarian, Aaron Tay, are a much more benign case. He wondered on Twitter if he needed to ask permission of the people showing up in search results to write a blog post in which their status updates were featured:

The link he posted was to the Booshaka service, which aggregates public Facebook updates. Below is a screenshot taken shortly after his tweet:

Social mores are different in Singapore and they’re more concerned with “saving face”, so I can understand his wondering if he should ask them first, but it’s worth noting that the next major feature coming from twitter is designed to make it easier to do exactly this. When you make something public on the internet, you no longer have any control over it. The social conventions which hold sway in your part of the world are irrelevant because the web is worldwide and there are news stories containing embedded tweets quite often in the US. In the US, we have a saying that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Implicit in this is the idea that opportunities are lost when you spend too much time coming to consensus and trying to please everyone. Aaron Tay lost an opportunity to write a blog post, perhaps not a very important thing, but if writing blog posts is a part of his career advancement strategy, not writing them is a lost opportunity.

Finally we come to Facebook. It will be no surprise to anyone who’s been following me on Twitter that I’m not a fan and I do not like what they’ve been doing. The tragic thing about what Facebook is doing is that it’s going to bring regulation down on the heads of everyone working in social media. Unless you think Senators have a nuanced understanding of social media and can appreciate why it’s not OK for Facebook to make status updates or location public yet it is OK for Twitter or Flickr to do so, then you’ll recognize that any regulation of social media is going to be a bad thing. One could argue here that no one should have posted anything that they didn’t want to whole world to see, but that argument fails when you consider that Facebook offered to manage their privacy for them and then shirked that responsibility when it became clear that the path to riches lay in exposing that userdata. Now the whole industry will suffer from reduced trust and governmental regulation due to their failure. Furthermore, they really missed a trick. There’s a great demand for a trustworthy and easy to use service that gives people control over their online profile, and they would have been a shoe-in for such a provider. That would have been the route to even greater ubiquity than Facebook Connect. Instead, Facebook is raining hot wax all over us like a malevolent Icarus.

The thread that ties all of this together is expectations of privacy. Simple expecting your wishes to be honored isn’t enough. The content will be around longer than you will, the content will be seen by people you couldn’t even imagine seeing it, and even if you’re told that it’ll only be shown to a limited audience, that can change, leaving you with little recourse.

I propose three things to ease the pain of future events like the above. First, understand that anything you put on the public web can and will be used in ways you couldn’t imagine. It will outlast you and any legal regime that might currently exist. Second, understand that you don’t have any right to blame anyone for any use they make of data you’ve made public. If you make your desires known, people will generally obey them, but there’s no guarantee they will or recourse if they don’t. Taking an active role in presenting and maintaining your public web profile helps ensures that what people see is what you want them to see. Third, give people the benefit of the doubt. Many people have made mistakes and exposed stuff publicly about themselves or others that they didn’t intend, so give ’em a break. Don’t come down hard on people posting pictures of themselves doing things that are legal and accepted in their social group, even if they’re disapproved of in yours.

I remain convinced there’s much more upside than downside to having a public presence on the web. I got more job offers extended to me after writing my blog post about moving on than I would have gotten had I not written it, and the linkage from Genome Web’s horde of readers certainly didn’t hurt. LinkedIn remains a great source of opportunities for me. My former employer, on the other hand, didn’t like how my blog post was the top link on Google for their name. I later removed their name when they asked. Also, if I were single and female, I might feel differently about exposing so much information, but if I were and did, I would be my responsibility to not expose that information.

5 thoughts on “Public anywhere is public everywhere.

  1. Hi William

    Yes, Singapore is a bit more conservative.Even *I* felt a twitch of fear when I saw this post, even though I knew it was coming and I should know better how quickly what I post or tweet (both positive and negative) can get amplified 🙂

    Sometimes I wonder if people go into social media, thinking only of the upside but forgetting the downside (bad news travel fast too!).

    It’s pretty much standard procedure these days for organizations to scan for mentions of themselves on the net (many libraries are doing this) and to respond when necessary.

    But I understand it can be quite jarring for a user who is ranting about some service (not expecting to be heard beyond his small circle of online friends), and suddenly a service representative appears and offers to help.

    I’ve seen people express notions like “the web is a big place, no-one will find or care about what I blog/tweet/facebook”. Of course, these days, everything is a search away from being found.

    I suspect these are the people who are shocked when they complain publicly about something or makes a remark online in public and someone like me comes in and offers to help.

    Of course many are pleasantly surprised, but I think a small majority are a little shocked because they don’t expect people to respond.

    I’ve seen a recent study on Singapore suggesting that Netizens here prefer to remain in the shadows..

    Interestingly enough, I notice a tend where twitter users from my institution are starting to make their accounts private. There are still far more public then private accounts, but among the followers of our twitter account, a fair amount are private compared to say the typical twitter accounts following my personal account.

    Facebook is particularly problematic because there is a even stronger expectation of privacy. Unfortunately Facebook changes means that users might be inadvertently making their status updates public. The same problem occurs when users comment in public groups!

    Still, many companies look up job candidates online, I would say if they are unaware of such issues they have far greater worries than a friendly librarian who is just trying to help….

    Okay let’s hope this comment, doesn’t come back and haunt me.. 🙂

    Truth is I sat on this comment for a while before deciding to push submit.

  2. Thanks for stopping in, Aaron. I hope you don’t mind me using you as an example of undersharing, and for what it’s worth, being a friendly librarian who stops in to help can really only be a good thing, in my opinion. It shows that you’re active and engaged and would probably be an asset at any institution lucky enough to have you.

  3. Expecting something you post in your blog to remain private is nuts. Want to have a private discussion – use a password protected forum, or a telephone, or a face-to-face meeting. DON’T BLOG IT.
    Anything you write in a blog or on social media may be copied, read, or used in a whole bunch of ways. I’m happy when folks link to me – it means I have written something thought-provoking and of value. That is why I blog!
    I am going to make both of my kids read this post; we have already had some facebook photo issues.

  4. Hi Pascal, I couldn’t agree with you more. Anything you don’t want the world to know about should not be posted on facebook. What I have trouble understanding is why some people use it to talk about every single thought that runs through their head.

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