The four questions to ask yourself before posting anything online


Hi everyone. Read about any compromising pictures of famous people being leaked online lately?

Pardon me while I bang my head against the wall. I’m not sure if I’m more angry at some people or mortified for others. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking intimate pictures for private use, but I think that some of these people simply didn’t understand how backups (or the internet as a whole) work.

And while we can’t help these beleaguered souls, we can learn from their experience. As someone who has a vested interest in issues of publicity versus privacy, I have come up with four rules about posting online, and, following those, the four questions that I ask myself before posting. You would do well to keep these in mind.

Rule #1: Nothing can be erased

I first logged on to the internet in 1995. A few months later, I submitted some guitar tab to a website about an artist I was keen on. The song was a b-side, and I couldn’t find any info on it, so I wrote it up myself.

This text file that I wrote almost 20 years ago is still available. Not only is it still available, but it is the very first result when you do a search for the song’s tab.

Wouldn't it figure that it would be a B-side?
It would figure that it would be a B-side.

And don’t think that if the site you posted on has shut down and no longer available, that your content is gone. (RIP GeoCities.) The Wayback Machine has been trawling websites and archiving them since the time of my guitar tab above. Want to know what Google looked like back in 1999?

Question #1: “Am I comfortable with this being available online forever?

Rule #2: You can’t assume privacy

The internet can be an atavistic place.

Witness the story of the tragic Alyssa Funke, a very successful college student who decided to do an adult film shoot. The reasons why she decided to do this are irrelevant (and you might want to question why you’re so curious why she did it). She shot the film under a false name, and as far as I can tell assumed that she would be able to keep the whole adventure private.

Well, you’ve already anticipated the result. Within days, news of her video had spread all around her school. And the slut-shaming and taunting online was relentless. (Apparently, it was okay to watch the video of a classmate, but not okay that the classmate did it in the first place.) After weathering the storm and vitriol for a few weeks, Alyssa killed herself.

I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone. I can’t even state that the correlation of events implies causation (though the timing is surely suspect). I just stress the importance of knowing that even if you think something you’re doing online is private, there’s nothing to stop someone from making it public.

(“Hey Mike, couldn’t you have used a less depressing example? Like, someone who Replies All to an email chain?” Perhaps, but I wanted to take the opportunity to keep alive the memory of someone who did nothing wrong and is no longer with us.)

Care about your privacy settings, and set them to your comfort level. But realize at the end of the day that these are just guidelines.

Question #2:  “Am I comfortable with this being public now?”

Rule #3: Even if something is private now, you can’t assume it will stay that way

Which leads us back to the celebrity picture leak. Some of these pictures were taken a few years ago, and remained private until now. But there was clearly nothing preventing a leak from happening at any point. As long as the pictures remained on a server, given enough know-how and drive, someone was able to gain access to these photos.

Question #3: “Would I be comfortable with this being made public months or years down the road?”

Rule #4: Once something is online, you no longer have control of it

How about a less salacious example: A woman posted a video of her 4-year old child talking about race and equality to her YouTube account. Someone copied the video to a different forum, where it was stripped of identifying information and went viral.

Personally, I can’t fathom the surreality of seeing a video of mine (child or not) show up on TV (it was on The View), knowing that someone else did this without my knowledge.

While in some ways, this seems like a positive outcome for someone who values privacy (no one knows it’s connected to me!), nonetheless, having no control over your content is disempowering. While the video was public, the poster nevertheless assumed some notion of control over its extent, a control that does not exist. (The woman has since decided to not post public videos, though she would be good to read Rule #2 above.)

Question #4:“Would I be comfortable if someone took this content and reused/republished it, possibly without my knowledge?”

If you answered “No” to any of the above questions, then don’t post the content.

Online is not like offline

If all of this seems depressing, it’s only because we have all made incorrect assumptions about our online presence. We still operate under the premise that online works like offline. In the offline world, memories fade, gossip can spread only so fast and so far, and eavesdroppers can be minimized. None of those assumptions hold true in the online world.

Personally, I foresee that in the future, we will all share less online. Or rather, that the caliber of what we share will change, as we adjust to the new realities of being online. And this will be a good thing. We can save the important communications for being offline.

Be smart. Be safe. And when in doubt, be silent.

Dare I ask for comments about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts (as long as you’ve thought through the four rules above!).

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