Five status updates people should never share online

Social-networking websites, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter, Google Buzz, and LinkedIn, encourage people to share what's on their minds. In a way, it's just an amplification of the water-cooler talk that we've shared since the Industrial Revolution, and the campfire talks we probably had as cave-dwellers.

But in the 21st Century, sharing what's on one's mind in the form of an online "status update" (as it's usually called) can be a dangerous thing. What was once offered as a passing comment to a co-worker on an assembly line is now a declaration of opinion to a potentially global audience, and unlike offhanded remarks made over a lunch break and quickly forgotten, these comments are now recorded for posterity -- quite literally, as in the case of Twitter, which is being archived by the Library of Congress.

This brings us to the risks few, if any, users are thinking about. Posterity will look back on what we think is just the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet with a different attitude than we expect -- if we're even conditioned to think about the consequences at all. Some people will benefit, no doubt: Their Tweets and Facebook status updates may end up looking progressive and maybe even prescient, even when viewed 50 years hence. Others, alas, will be highly regrettable. Here are five examples of things people should refrain from declaring online:

#1: "My boss/my significant other is a jerk" or "I hate my job"
The old advice went that if you couldn't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. It was sage advice. It's along very similar lines to the advice that a married couple should never go to bed angry, but rather should always seek to resolve their differences quickly and with patience towards one another. Expressing angry emotions in a public forum -- in fact, a global forum -- isn't really a psychological release so much as it's a way of amplifying those emotions. Just because it's possible to inform the world in real time of one's soap-opera of life doesn't mean that it's a good idea to do so. It isn't. And when it's the boss about whom one is complaining, then it's an occupational hazard as well.

#2: "I'm on vacation in ___"
You wouldn't put a sign in front of your home saying "Attention burglars: This house is unoccupied. Feel free to rob us." Why would any sensible person put the same sign on the Internet where everyone on the planet can see it?

#3: "___ will hate me for saying this, but..."
If any instinct suggests to you that saying something might have bad consequences, or that doing so might violate someone else's trust, then it's time to trust the instinct rather than brazenly overriding it.

#4: "I'm calling you out, ___"
Rivalries, petty differences, and political animosity should be shelved whenever possible, rather than aired for all the world to see. Yesterday's competitors can easily become tomorrow's merger partners -- just ask Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, or anyone who's ever worked at a company with a hyphenated name. The people at Bear Stearns likely never expected to find themselves working for JP Morgan, but it happened in a flash, and anything disparaging that any of them might've said anywhere online about their rivals-cum-overlords could easily have meant the difference between keeping a job and losing it.

#5: "You know who I hate?"
US Senator Robert Byrd was associated with the KKK in his young adulthood, and it was remembered until his death at age 92, as it rightly should have been due to his influential public presence. Countless other celebrities and public officials have spent years trying to distance themselves from youthful expressions of hostility towards other people. A common theme among many of the most damaging personal histories is hatred, particularly of classes of people. The world is simply too burdened with hate already, and there's no reason to add to it in the public marketplace of ideas -- nor, for that matter, in one's own heart and mind. Yesterday's common prejudices frequently become today's points of embarrassment. Why place hatred on the permanent public record?

There are, no doubt, many other things people shouldn't be sharing online about their inner thoughts and feelings. But these five are a good starting point for halting bad behavior before it does permanent damage.

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This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on March 9, 2011 2:29 AM.

Three reasons you'll still be using YouTube long after Facebook is gone was the previous entry in this blog.

Four reasons you should own your own domain name is the next entry in this blog.

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