A good old school rule of thumb is to avoid saying or doing something you would be embarrassed to tell your mother about. Electronic media have changed the rules and the stakes have never been higher.
Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is learning about this first-hand. He may be an innocent victim. Or he could be a naive twit.
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But this story isnt about the pitfalls of sophomoric antics when perpetrated by the rich and famous or by the never-ending supply of celebrity wannabes. Everyone can point to some instance which they would rather forget, probably because it points to a temporary insanity or out of control moment often aided by a golden elixir from Milwaukee or St. Louis. Stuff like this happens on occasion. So long as nobody is hurt, these exaggerated moments can make for interesting stories at reunions among friends. Until recently, that was the extent of the shelf life and the damage.
What has changed is that these moments are now likely to be recorded, stored, distributed and exist somewhere in a cloud for the remainder of time. Every waking moment is now content. Therein lie the dangers.
In the wave of personal technical connectivity which has captivated a generation of enthusiastic apostles, one important element is missing -- a warning label. Which would logically be followed by enlightened self-control.
Here the free-wheeling techies could take a lesson from their elders, especially those in business. Every pictorial image, verbal utterance and printed word requires thoughtful, even excruciating scrutiny. This is because pictures and words can be false, misleading, hurtful and dangerous. They may have significant financial consequences. So legions of lawyers are employed to protect the valuable reputations of enterprises before the fact or the act if possible.
But the new wave of young technical gunslingers fails to understand that the same principle applies to the valuable reputation of their own personal enterprises.
Seemingly every phone is a camera -- with high resolution. Most are video recording devices. They can then be used as distribution networks with global reach. Get something posted on YouTube (often the goal) and the entire population of the connected planet effectively owns it. This includes friends, enemies and a billion people in China. The genie is out of the bottle. The laws of nations will never be able keep up.
The baby boom generation was taught to fear big brother (the Federal Government). The fear today should be your big brother or your sister or your roommate or some stranger walking down the street. And now with a little Photoshop your baby, anybodys baby, can look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Funny or frightening?
A bright young woman I know was advised to temporarily substitute a false name on her Facebook account before she started applying to medical schools. Good advice. At least this was something she could control. But the images of college parties remained for those of us clued into her invented cyber identity. With the Internet, every day is one of those college reunions. They used to occur at tailgate parties or every ten years in a Holiday Inn ballroom, where everyone exaggerates about their youthful antics.
Everything communicates. Now more than ever it is your web persona doing the communicating. Privacy is out the window.
So the old rule of thumb needs updating. It is no longer just about what youd like your mother to know. She loves you and can forgive just about any misdemeanor. Now its about what your voters or your medical patients might see, hear or want to know. They may be less forgiving.
Mark Hubbard is an independent consultant providing services exclusively to senior management, primarily in media, manufacturing and start-up ventures. His areas of expertise include: market and industry analysis, business valuation, negotiating transactions, financing and restructuring, enterprise modeling, sales development and training, and executive coaching.