Last week the Washington Post fired one of its rising stars. Dave Weigel is a political reporter who made his name writing about the conservative movement in America and he was recently hired by the Washington Post to expand their online coverage.
Dave was also a member of a private listserv group named JournOlist, where 400 bloggers who trusted one another discussed the issues of the day in a private forum. Or should I say, a forum they thought was private.
One anonymous member of the group, for reasons only known to them, decided to archive Dave's emails and release them to several conservative websites. They were not flattering. In a series of snarky comments, Dave revealed his apparent distaste for many of the people he was covering.
The Washington Post fired him within a day of learning about the emails. Dave's friends and readers have mainly backed him, arguing that his private emails should never have been made public and that, in his reporting, Dave was always fair and even-handed.
All of this may be true but it seems to me to miss the point - we all of us have to learn that nothing we say online can be guaranteed to remain private.
It's not private because you have to sign in with a password - just ask Dave.
It's not private because you're talking only to friends - see above.
It's not private because you used a fake name when posting your comments. That's because whenever you post online, your IP address (the unique location of your computer) is recorded. Plus, people are really good at seeing through fake names.
It's not private because you sent it in an email - it's there for all time and can be retrieved at any time.
It's not private because you set all your privacy settings to maximum on Facebook - it only takes one 'friend' to break your trust (again, see Weigel, Dave)
Basically, nothing you say online can ever be guaranteed to stay private. If we forget that fact, we invite disaster. This has huge implications for the future - implications that we all need to be aware of. Any time you type something online, ask yourself would I be OK with my boss seeing this? And would I be OK with future employers seeing this?
If the answer is no, remember Dave Weigel and step away from the keyboard.