Social Media: It’s On Your Permanent Record

Posted: April 6, 2011 in General Writing Tips, Marketing Communications, Social Media, The Writer's Psyche

When I was a kid, school authorities could frighten me into conformity by threatening to list a minor behavioral infraction on my “permanent record.” I imagined a blacklist of devastating shame that would pass from one authority figure to another, and follow me forever. Now, with social media, that nightmare has been realized.

Everything you do publicly on the Internet is practically etched in stone. Thanks, search engines! (Photo by Bee Wolf Ray on Flickr.)

I’d really rather write an entry encouraging slow adopters to jump on board with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, blogging, and the rest of the social media panoply. But I’ve concluded that from a professional perspective, every single letter you type into a social media expression should result from the question, “What would someone wiser, kinder, and more thick-skinned than I am write?” (And even, “Would that person respond at all?”)

A brouhaha that occurred recently on a book review site triggered my renewed caution and introspection. I think every writer who anticipates promoting themselves via social media should take a look at this.

A likable guy who uses the screen handle BigAl specializes in reviewing books published in the Kindle format. He posted a very reasonable review of The Greek Seaman, by Jacqueline Howett. As is common with social media, readers commented on the review. One of those commenters was the author herself — angry about BigAl’s review. What follows must be seen to be believed. I recommend you read BigAl’s review, and the initial comments on it (note that it is not worth your time to read all of the more than 300 comments that resulted). I’ll wait right here while you check it out.

Back already? Were you as stunned as I was to watch the author destroy her own reputation in a few brief hours?

I think your professional reputation might be able to recover, in time, from your insisting that grammatically tortured sentences you wrote had “no flaws.” You can later say “Since then, I’ve learned better.” But when you try to negate a reviewer’s opinion by counter-posting positive reviews from your own relatives, you lose credibility. And when you finally tell the reviewer and all the commenters, more than once, to eff off… I think you just wrote Game Over across the top of your career.

Why? Because once Google picks up your mistake, it will follow you forever.

Getting something removed from search engine results is like asking the US government to change your Social Security number: it is theoretically feasible, but it takes a long time, a lot of expense, and nearly superhuman effort to pull it off. So for the rest of Jacqueline Howett’s life, anyone who searches on her name will find her regrettable inability to absorb constructive critique. And it’s not just Google that is the problem: after the first 10o comments on BigAl’s review, you see snarkier commenters visiting from Twitter and Facebook, where people were mentioning what a hilarious ass the author was making of herself.

Wise advice from a parking slot in Costa Mesa, CaliforniaWatching the whole sobering incident motivated me to search on my own name. I’m happy to report that I found no examples where I advised readers to execute biologically implausible imperatives. But I was startled to see that where I had sent some business documents to limited, carefully selected recipients, some of those recipients had in turn re-posted the documents for the whole Internet to see. It reminded me that on the web, you dare not write assuming a limited audience and a specific context: eventually, all audiences might see your writing, without any context.

If you hope to make a career as a writer, you cannot avoid social media; nor should you try to. But let the fight over the Greek Seaman remind you that, regardless of how the “social” part of “social media” may attack or provoke you, whatever you write back remains on your permanent record. Your goal now is to exercise enough care and wisdom to make that a plus.##

  1. ArdynnPR says:

    There is so much to this post that I don’t know where to begin. It is not something I had particularly thought about, but is inherently correct and should be obvious to all professionals.

    I think the biggest audience that should pay attention are the kids out there that use social mediums to “BLAST” others. These incriminating postlets could very well come back to haunt you. And what happens it the US follows the UK in determining that anything posted via social mediums (Twitter in particular) becomes public property and can be used by anyone?

    It gives us a lot to think about and I will be writing a more formal response on our blog

    Thank you Scott for this poke in the ribs.

  2. steve Pinzon says:

    Fascinating exchange. The author’s sold the world on her defensiveness and lack of maturity. Your point, Scott, was well made!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Well said, Scott. Well said.

  4. One of the best laughs I’ve had all week – reading that string. Thanks for the awesome reminder – the Golden Rule, Rules!

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