Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Internet Is A Megaphone

The electronic computer is to individual privacy what the machine gun was to the horse cavalry. ~ Alan W. Scheflin and Edward M. Opton, The Mind Manipulators: A Non-Fiction Account, 1978

Let me tell you a little story.

Years ago, I was working for a company that had an excellent local reputation for having high wages, great benefits, and a wonderful work environment. It turned out that it was true that they paid well and provided excellent perks. It was also a nice clean factory with pleasant offices. It was also true that they used up people and threw them away, confident that they could easily replace them because, after all they did have all that other good stuff to draw in more applicants.

On one occasion, the company put out an employee survey to find out how they could improve morale, because they recognized that people were getting a little tired of being used up. It was supposed to be an anonymous survey, but the survey was handed out in small groups and had an ID number on each one. When someone pointed this out, the Human Resources manager, who was personally administering the surveys, said something about the number not meaning anything and we shouldn't worry about it.

We all said, "Do you think we were born yesterday?" Of course, we said that silently.

The moral of the story is that management doesn't like criticism from the ranks. Companies in general don't like being badmouthed or embarrassed by employees, internally or in public. Especially in public. Almost every employee manual has some sort of "good behavior" and "keep your mouth shut in public" clause.

Believe it or not, notorious free-speech fanatic that I am, I'm fine with that. It's a condition of employment that generally doesn't interfere with my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I can even write blogs about most anything under the sun. As long as I don't get stupid and advocate something illegal or immoral, I don't expect to get hassled about what I write (and so far never have been).

Yet, we are regularly treated to articles like this one, in which we find that a third of employed people blog about their employers and 39% of those posters have written something that "could be potentially sensitive or damaging about their place of work, employer or a colleague".

And this doesn't include the geniuses who post nude photos, admit to drug use, or otherwise implicate themselves in activities embarrassing to family, friends, and -- of course -- employers.

Listen up, people. It's about time that you came to understand some things about how the computing world works.
  1. A few billion people can potentially read everything you write. It's not a problem that I have, to be sure, but what with Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, and bazillions of bloggers looking around the Internet for content, the possibility exists of lots of people looking at something you've posted. If that something is stupid, the odds rise exponentially.

  2. There is no such thing as anonymity on the web. You will be found out. The more hints you provide, like pictures, detailed references to coworkers, and so on, the more likely you'll be checking out the unemployment benefits in your location.

  3. Setting up "friends" or "private" areas won't help. Once someone is in, they can blab about what you said. And they'll do it in a public place. Or worse, in a private place, like your boss' office.

  4. If you wouldn't want to see something on a billboard on the most heavily trafficked thoroughfare in your home town, you shouldn't post it in a blog or a forum. Especially when it comes to photos.

  5. The Internet is forever. Stuff posted on the Web may not be immortal prose, but it can be persistent. Caching sources like the ever-popular Wayback Machine can ensure that the photo of you drunk out of your mind displayed on the MADD website is still available.

  6. Anyone can use Google (TM), Yahoo (TM), or Any Other Search Engine (TM; hey, you never know), especially prospective employers. You know that really hilarious posting about the boss messing around with his secretary you posted in your blog? Or how about that rant about how unfair everyone has been toward Adolf Hitler? Might be that the person thinking about offering you that high-paying gig has found it, too. And he or she might not be a big Hitler or infidelity fan.
Don't say I didn't warn you.

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