Who among us has not had the embarrassing, and yes even painful, experience of speaking before thinking? It is rarely a positive experience. Once it comes out the mouth, you can never take it back.
On a positive note, most of us have been able to take those difficult moments and turn them into terrific learning experiences. We can usually do that successfully because of our individual commitments to personal and professional growth.
In our ever-enlarging world of the Internet and social media in particular, we are facing these same growth opportunities on an even grander scale. It is not just a grander scale, but it is a more important scale. At least in the case of the physical world, your statements are confined in the moment to your immediate physical audience. That limits duration and spread.
When we commit those same crimes via the Internet, our statements are not confined to a specific physical audience for a relatively short duration. Rather, they are immediately available to an unlimited audience forever. On the Internet, duration and spread are unlimited.
All this reinforces the need to filter all our online communications through a grid that is tighter than any grid we have ever used in the past. As powerful as our human emotions can be, we absolutely must keep them in check. Cooling off, rethinking, and postponing need to be daily, automatic, intrinsic reflexes to our online personas.
This is also true even for those situations in which we believe we are righting a social wrong or exposing an evildoer. In so doing, let us be sure we are thinking through the situation and our responses. Does every negative demand a positive? Must every person or entity with whom we disagree have to have a response?
Please understand what I am saying. I am the first to speak up on ethical or personal-conviction grounds when evil must be addressed or truth must be shared. I am not advocating a compromise position when absolutes or serious ethical issues come into play. What I am saying is simply that we must all use discretion. There are right ways and wrong ways to express a thought. Moreover, what I am saying beyond whatever that thought may be is that we simply remember the permanence of the Internet. The extra filtering, analyzing, and self-examination need to be automatic. I like the way Laura Hudson explains it (“Argument: Shame With Caution” Wired, August 2013, pp. 19–24):
“Increasingly, our failure to grasp our online power has become a liability—personally, professionally, and morally. We need to think twice before we unleash it. . . . Internet speech can be cruder and crueler than our real-life interactions, in part due to our literal distance from the people we’re talking to and their reactions. That detachment can sometimes be liberating, and it’s often a good thing that people speak bluntly online, especially against injustice that they see around them. But a sense of proportion is crucial. These days, too many Internet shame campaigns dole out punishment that is too brutal for the crime. . . . [remember], the Internet doesn’t do take-backs if you change your mind later.” (pp. 20, 24)
Think before you click. The thinking can be reworked; the clicking cannot.