Donovan Colbert is a TechRepublic contributor.
The most surprising part of becoming a content contributor on TechRepublic was realizing how correct were the dire warnings about the impact social media can have on your life. I had a couple previous experiences online with the persistent nature of posts on the internet, but noticed my whole attitude toward online interactions softened once I was in the public eye.
I also developed a sympathy for the abuse that content creators take. It really isn't fair. Readers have this latitude to tear authors apart, ruthlessly challenging their opinions and credibility, and professional decorum means the writers are best off completely ignoring those attacks. I used to be one of those readers, and I've got a feeling some fellow content contributors haven't forgiven or forgotten that.
Recently I received a particularly scathing evaluation of one of my posts where a reader suggested if I had come to his office with this report he would have been upset at me for wasting his time, would have dismissed my credibility, would have fired me and, finally, would have mocked me on Reddit.
Unlike my peers, I'm not as career conscious about keeping myself in check and being nice to all the readers, so I didn't exactly turn the other cheek. But anyone who has butted heads with me and read my reply probably understood I pulled my punch.
Here is where things get interesting in a way that illustrates the dangers of social media. I wanted to check the interest on this post, so I copied the title and plugged it into Twitter's search function. Among the hits returned was a post that I recognized as this user's name. In the same way that a potential employer might search for public information about a position candidate, I soon had a wealth of information on this poster. I knew what city he was in, I knew his Facebook page, I knew his title and the company he worked for, and I even knew what he looked like.
The post on TechRepublic was virtually anonymous, because the user profile is very empty (how mysterious). But by linking to his post on TechRepublic through his Twitter account which was linked to Facebook, suddenly I had access to all kinds of public yet personal information about him. Ironically, the discussion surrounded a simple security mistake I had overlooked and how compromising the results of that could be.
I've had an interaction on the Internet where I was on the other side of being "background checked" by someone. I had gotten in a conflict with a guy in a community of Retro Game fans, and the guy found an image I had drawn in my early twenties. When I was 23, it didn't seem that bad, but as a guy in my mid to late 30s, the context made it seem a little disturbing.
I deleted the image from the online gallery where it was, but I'm sure the NSA still has copies stored safely away somewhere. I felt violated and it was creepy, but I learned an important lesson. The things that seem reasonable when you are in your twenties may be taken completely differently when you're in your forties, and the Internet has a better memory than an elephant. Likewise the things that sound reasonable in the moment might seem regrettable 90 days later when you're interviewing for a new position you really want.
It's easier to make these recommendations than to actually live them. I'm probably a better (or worse,) example of this than many people. A couple of years ago I had an experience with Digg where I was close to a circle of people that Ole Oleson labeled the "Digg Patriots". The details aren't important anymore, but let's just say Ole and I do not see eye to eye on a lot of issues.
Recently I discovered his posts showing up on my G+ thread. A brighter person would have immediately blocked Mr. Olson, under the premise that nothing positive could come of interacting with someone so ideologically opposed. Not me. I felt compelled to dig up the past, and engage with his readers on posts where I disagree. What good is the internet for if not for exchanging different opinions through hearty debate?
Well, how about "good for turning me into a kid with a stick poking a sleeping bear?" This is a great example of where the course simply isn't always clear. Is the value in interacting with people who think differently, so that you both might grow? Maybe. But some people want to exist without alternate opinions challenging their perspective. When dealing with people who make a living on opinion, I've noticed the former is frequently the case. A lot of people write so you can hear their voice. They're far less interested in hearing yours. I'm getting better at recognizing this.
All the time we read about people who ruin other people's careers and their own through what they think are inconsequential posts on social networks. It is time we realize that the way we behave online is not separate from our real lives. They've become the same thing.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.