Internet Rule #1 and #2

It’s cliche now, but the Internet has completely up-ended the world many of us knew.  I can order exotic spices and have them delivered to my home.  I can research almost anything at any time.  Most importantly to me, I can write a blog post and it can be seen by the entire world.

Of course, this means that the entire world can read what I write.  There are no secrets on the Internet.  This is Internet Rule #1.  If you post it, others will see it, whether you intend it or not.  This is even the case if you post it to something “protected” like LiveJournal or Facebook.  (If you need evidence, simply peruse Failbook or Lamebook, though probably not while at work.)

Why make a rule of this? Because people consistently fail to understand this, and constantly seem to shoot themselves in the foot with some “secret” communication that fails to stay secret.

As always with this blog, there’s a specific, recent example to demonstrate this.  Sue Trotter at the Homeopathy World Community made a blog post calling on homeopaths to “play the race discrimination card” in order to discourage criticism of homeopathy.  (Some of you may notice that this link is not to the original post, but instead to a screen shot.  I’ll address that shortly.) This post was obviously meant to be just for other supporters of homeopathy.  The post was even in a subscriber only section of the website (as far as I can tell).

However, an opponent of homeopathy saw it, saved it, and spread it to others.  The post has since become fuel for the anti-homeopathy side.  It suggests that homeopaths don’t have scientific arguments, but instead rely on demagoguery. It suggests that homeopaths themselves don’t think they can win in court, but instead must bully people by abusing racial discrimination laws.  It suggests that Sue Trotter is willing to engage in some unethical behavior.  An informal post to some like-minded people ends up damaging that whole group.

The homeopathic site that hosted the post understood how damaging this blog post was. It made all homeopathy supporters look like unethical bullies without scientific backing. A quick apology, along with a disavowal of the post, might have tamed the firestorm.  At the least, it would have kept the heat on just Sue Trotter, keep the rest of the site out of it.

Instead, the site broke Internet Rule #2: “Anything posted to the Internet is there forever.” The offending blog post was taken down.  So was everything else by Sue Trotter on the website. As can be seen, screen-shots were already taken and circulated, and the Google cache still exists.  Taking it down has done nothing to quell the criticism. Instead, it looks like Homeopathy World Community just wants to wash its hands of the whole affair. That is not a constructive position.

On the internet, you are better served by an honest apology or measured defense than in trying to pretend something never existed. Even better is to avoid such issues by remembering that the entire world can (and likely will) see everything you post.  Remember: “Anyone can see anything on the internet” and “Anything on the internet is forever.” If you are unsure of something before you post it, get a second opinion.  If it’s up and getting more fire than you expected, write your defense or apology, but do not pull it without explanation.  (Rules 3 and 4 will better explain how to write that defense/apology.)

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