(Originally written in February of 2011…yet still relevant today)
It’s almost impossible these days to be unfamiliar with the fervor about WikiLeaks. In fact, thanks to almost constant recent media attention, even if you never log on to the Internet, you’re bound to know that WikiLeaks is under fire for their practice of publicly and dramatically “outing” questionable company and government actions. Many people around the world are outraged by WikiLeaks’ guerilla practices, while many others celebrate and defend WikiLeaks as the protectors of transparency and freedom of information. No matter where your opinion falls on the spectrum between love and loathing, it’s tough to dispute that we can all learn a few lessons about email and social media interaction from WikiLeaks.
Never put anything in writing that you don’t want someone else to see. This advice has been handed down from generation to generation, and with the ease of information sharing brought about by email and social media, this counsel is more important than ever. The tenet holds true even if you don’t have a web-based Robin Hood secretly delving into your every communiqué. How many of us have emailed something snarky or inappropriate to a close colleague, purely with the intent to vent innocently, only to accidentally forward the note on to the individual(s) about whom we complained? In general, if you feel the need to vent, it’s best to pick up the phone or to talk face-to-face. Or just take a deep breath and move on.
- Always consider the manner in which you convey written information. Sometimes, in an effort to be expedient, we “react” to each other through online media; in other words, we respond textually to each other without remembering that without physicalcontext – a smile, a shrug, a facial expression – many comments can be misinterpreted. After you let your typing fingers do the talking but before you hit Submit or Send, try reviewing your comment from the perspective of a reader who doesn’t innately understand your perspective. Is your meaning clear and something you don’t mind others seeing out of context? Send away. But if you’re uncomfortable with a possible interpretation of your words, edit first.
- Know whom to trust with sensitive information. Depending on the information to which you have access and your situation, it can be challenging to resist email, Twitter or Facebook. Even so… are you certain your close friends won’t repost your excited but highly personal Facebook confession? Are you sure your boss will keep your concerns about your coworker close to the chest? It’s almost certain that Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s superiors trusted that he would not release a single diplomatic cable to which he had access to Wikileaks, much less 250,000 of them, but his is an extreme and rare example. How about, then, the case of Karen Owen, the Duke University student who developed the inappropriate-but-intended-to-be-privately-humorous PowerPoint entitled, “”An Education Beyond The Classroom: Excelling In The Realm Of Horizontal Academics,” which went viral thanks to a few of her friends who shared the presentation with people outside of the intended recipients? Knowing whom to trust is easier said than done, which is what leads us to point number 4…
- Don’t burn bridges, and be considerate to everyone. How many of us, though, can identify former friends who are no longer trusted or current close colleagues of whom we once were suspicious? How many of us are currently in the exact same professional role in which we started, with the same responsibilities and expectations? The world and our relationships change constantly. If common courtesy doesn’t prompt you to maintain a level of consideration and respect in your online communications, public or private, consider ramifications if the individual you openly disdain now becomes influential in your life in the future – possibly as a friend, a colleague, a client or a vendor.
The Internet and the communications that online tools enable have enhanced the speed and ease with which we interact with each other, both socially and in doing business. The positive impacts are innumerable. However, the pitfalls are numerous, too, and it’s vital to our success – personal and professional – that we understand that what we say and how we say it is makes all the difference.