Ever say one of those dumb things at a party or dinner table and wish you could take it back? And you know you can’t?
We all do this from time to time. Say that stupid thing. Make that bad decision. Talk before we think.
Well, actually, with me it’s more than just from time to time. I do it a lot. Most of the time its just a joke that doesn’t work out. Or its the witty comment that just sounds dumb. For the most part, people are forgiving. I even manage to forgive myself. I can let it go.
But over the course of a lifetime, there are a few of these that are, shall we say, special. One or two of them haunt me to this day. I manage to keep them in the recesses of my memory. But sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, or just in a bad moment, they return to play out before my eyes in full technicoloured splendor.
It’s times like that when I realize that I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, but there is something that sends a cold chill down my spine. They say that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. What if its not my life, but some perverse bloopers show of just the dumb stuff? I’m not sure I believe in heaven or hell, but if there is eternal punishment, it would be seeing every really dumb or cruel or stupid thing I did flashing before my eyes. If I had to watch that it would seem like an eternity.
Funny how our images of these things are rooted in our childhood memories. The idea that there is some way the universe keeps track of what we’ve done right or wrong something we all share in one way or another. For most of us, that view matures as we get older. Sure, Santa had a list — he checked it twice. That one was easy to let go of. But real life is a different story. It imprints on you in different ways. I remember the principal at my school who informed me that my conduct would be noted on my permanent record. I can still channel the fear of that 10 year old kid. I felt trapped. My lip quivered. I wanted to cry. Even then, I had guts. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. But it was tough. Really tough. Especially when I looked over at my mother, who was almost in tears herself. This was my permanent record?
This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. It comes and goes for reasons that escape me. It’s like that crazy dream where I’m in school and I’m naked. No idea what that one is about. Freud would probably have a field day. But I have no idea why it comes and goes. At least the dream about being naked is probably some kind of neurosis. This one about the permanent record is long past its expiry date. But its among the ghosts that haunt me. And it will still wake me up in a sweat.
So what? Everyone has their nightmares. You wake up. You can’t sleep. Some of us wander past the computer and – Google ourselves.
Some find nothing. How sad is that? Others find something even more troubling. Their nightmare is still there — on the screen.
What if that moment before we expire was a Google search? What would you find? For some of us, there are some really stupid things up there. Highly embarrassing. In the words of my public school principal, these are on your permanent record. This is even worse than your school record. If a principal said that today he’d probably be laughed out of the room – “cool, put it on my permanent record, big boy. But if you release two words of that to anybody, my parents will see you in court!” That might have been a bluff coming from a 10 year old kid. But ask any university professor why they really don’t want to go after cheating and plagiarism. Why? Who needs the grief? However slight the chance, do you want to be part of a lawsuit?
No such luck with the internet. Unless you’re some kind of idiot, suing the internet is — as they say — so not going to happen. If you are one of those idiots who think they can sue the internet, please notice that I didn’t mention your name. I don’t have to — people can find you with a few creative searches. You can run but you can’t hide.
Wasn’t it always like this? Haven’t people have been posting crazy stuff since before there was an internet. Even in the old days of dial in bulletin boards (yes, I’m that old) people were posting stuff they’d prefer their mother, current spouse, boss or their kids didn’t read. The difference was that a lot of this was done anonymously and in places where our mothers, spouses, bosses and kids were unlikely to find it.
Social networking, visual content and things like tagging have changed that. Even if you live your on-line life under a pseudonym, all it takes is for someone else to tag you in a photo and there you are.
One crazy picture of you at party doing the shooters. Or your name in a facebook group? That screaming rant that you posted on that forum? The picture of the office party with your arm around someone? Harmless? Maybe. Depends who is looking at it.
But don’t assume that nobody is looking at this stuff because it’s too trivial. Employers are googling you. Parents are turning up as facebook friends with names that sound just like some classmate. And they are freaking out at what their kids are saying or doing. Spouses are looking at what the other half is doing. Your kids are looking. Heck, your mom is probably looking.
Here’s something scary. What they see doesn’t even have to be correct. My son told me recently that he thought it was cool that I was once a drummer in a band. Trouble is, I play guitar – not drums. So was it a mistake? Or did he get confused between me and the 50 other Jim Love’s? For some reason a lot of them are creative types. Who knows? My point is that I didn’t see this. The only reason I knew about it was the fact my son told me. Which means he’s looking at stuff that I don’t even see.
I do a lot of public speaking. I know from some of the questions that people have checked me out online before they came to the presentation. It’s not that hard. But sometimes I’m amazed at what they ask.
You can miss things by just Googling yourself. There’s a whole cottage industry based on searching different aspects of people’s on-line and off-line lives. Sometimes you don’t even have to look. My wife found herself as a friend on a Facebook page and surprise, surprise – one of our kids is also a friend.
It’s not just web pages and pictures. I’ve been listening to reports from a recent trial where the evidence was the text messages that were exchanged. Text messages in court? Would you have thought of that? Do you even know that every text message you send is archived? Did you know a court can subpoena them?
Not that it takes a court order. Sometimes just a little bumbling will do. We’ve all heard the story of the the person who sent the email to the wrong person. Recently a vendor (who I’m tempted to name) wrote a note to a client which mentioned me. What they wrote about me was, shall I say, unflattering? Why? I had taken them to task earlier about acting, shall we say less than professionally — sometimes that’s my job. The difference with me was that I followed my cardinal rule. When I have something tough to say, I don’t email. I call the person.
This was one on one and it needn’t have gone any further. Unfortunately, this person decided to launch an preemptive strike, trashing me in an email to my client. I have no idea why they did this. They demonstrated their lack of professionalism in a way that nothing I would do or say would have accomplished. It got worse. Somebody in the subsequent chain of emails discovered that I was not on the list and sent the string of messages to me without realizing what was in it.
It’s actually too bad that all our meetings were conference calls. I couldn’t see the look on this person’s face when I quoted from this email — in front of their executives. Conference call or not, the sound of squirming and groveling is still something to hear.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar said that, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Not so in the online world. One of my wisecracks is sometimes more accurate – “no good deed goes unpunished.” Cynical? Perhaps. But things can go terrible wrong even when you try to do good.
I recommended someone for a job some time ago. It’s the only time I’ve ever done this, but I gave them a recommendation although I had some minor but nagging reservation. Why? They were so depressed about losing their job that I was really afraid for them. How could I not do this? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made a similar mistake. This one almost cost me a a friendship when the person I recommended turned out to be a total disaster. I didn’t see that coming. And it did me a lot of damage with my friend who hired this person. If I had it to do over again, I might do something different.
Bad as this was, it could have been worse. How many people have done a Linked In recommendation because they were asked to? Or did it because the other person recommended them? I don’t. Every word is true or I find an excuse to avoid it. But what if you recommend somebody and they do something really stupid? There you are, endorsing a nut case.
I’m sure you heard about Jon Stewart’s battle with the CNN television host over what Steward lampooned as as some pretty boneheaded stock recommendations. It was pretty funny to have all those clips played saying to buy stocks that are now in the toilet. It’s hard to plead that he was misquoted or taken out of context when the whole clip was there to be played. But you don’t have to be famous. I found an article of mine on a website that was done years ago. Ever read a paper that you wrote in first year? Remember what it sounded like? Guess what – for some people that paper will be searchable for years to come.
In the world of social media and the personalized internet, our lives are being pushed out into the electronic commons. And if Andy Warhol was right and we all get 15 minutes of fame, what will people see? Is it what we want to them to see? Is it accurate? Is it the person we are today? Or is it from some point in time long ago, a time that we might rather forget?
It’s all there. Things you’ve said. Things you’ve done. Things you’ve written. All there for the world to see. In websites, blogs, social networks, forums — and even in our text messages and other areas we would think were private. It doesn’t even have to be accurate. All there. On your permanent record.
There are ways to get the record cleaned up. People practice “reputation management.” They’ll tackle your concerns and try to fix those problems. I don’t know how effective those services are. Maybe someone can leave a a comment if you’ve had experience with reputation management.
My take on this? I see how valuable reputation management is when people or companies get into a real jackpot. I have no idea how much people charge for this service or even what they do. Maybe someone will leave a comment on the blog if you’ve had some experience in this area. If you are someone who provides these services, be careful you don’t make it too much of a commercial. But I am interested.
Short of shelling out some bucks to this type of service, what can you do?
I’d start by being aware. Here’s some things I do:
– If you haven’t googled yourself, do it
– Take a look at your public pages – Linked In, Facebook — all the rest
– Set up a pseudonym and alternate mailbox for forum postings
– Even when I have to register with sites, I rarely give the right data (sorry folks!)
– Don’t invite or accept friends you don’t know.
– Don’t give out recommendations unless you really mean it. I don’t have any problem ignoring requests so far. But if you don’t think you can say no or duck the question, then don’t do it at all. Just tell people that you’d love to recommend them but it makes it so difficult to refuse people that you’ve stopped.
– Don’t say, write or publish anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local paper, or given to your boss, a new prospect or just a friend. If you are angry, count to ten.
– Never talk disparagingly about a client. Ever.
Feel free to add some of your own ideas.
Most of what you need to know is common sense. It was true before the internet. There are many places in this world where it is truly, “better to keep your mouth shut and be thought of as an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Your mother was right when she told you that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. And you are judged by the company you keep. So assume that everything you post or send will end up being seen by the person you least want to see it and in a circumstance where it will be embarrassing.
But how do you deal with the well intentioned items which, in hindsight, are not the stuff that you want to see with your name on it? Don’t sweat those. Take them down from your site and ask others to do the same. Yes, they will be there for all time, but people have to really be looking and if they are, there is another defense. Do like you do in life. Post a lot more of your good stuff. Let them judge you not on a single article or prediction, but on the total breadth of what you have contributed.
I have a word for those who look for one item to trap you. But I’m not going to use it. You know why.
Thanks for listening tomorrow. Or a week from now. Or ten years from now.
I think I can get back to sleep. I’m going to do one last thing and reread this before I post it. After all — it goes on my permanent record.