Be sure your sin will find you out – Numbers 32:23
It’s not like a person of the non-religious persuasion like me to start a blog post with a Bible verse, but I do rather like that one. It’s a good one for writers to apply to stories and characters – make sure what a character does will come back and bite them in the ass later. However, today I’m talking about the fact this warning could have been written with the Internet in mind. That Moses dude sure was a prophet!
The Internet is a permanent repository of the sins you’ve committed online – I mean do you know how hard it is to truly delete anything from Facebook? But I’m thinking mostly about writers here and anyone who’s working on becoming a writer. I did a guest post on Clare London’s Live Journal earlier this week, about the things I’ve learned since becoming a published writer. One of those was that if you’re a writer active on the internet and networking out among the three dimensional people you have to be on your best behaviour 24/7. One snarky reply to a critical review and you find yourself on the list of entitled, Prima Donna authors who people say will eviscerate any poor reader who dares to give anything less than a five star review.
And if you think that’s pressure, consider that ideally you have to have had that insight long before you came under the scrutiny a published author is under, because The Internet Never Forgets. It’s a Catch 22 for sure. Nobody told you when you first got online that you needed the ability to see into the future, did they? That one day you’d be a writer and living in mortal dread that people would find something embarrassing from the days when you still thought LOL meant “lots of love.”
So what if you have in fact behaved badly in the past? Even if your earlier online life was under a different name and identity from your writer persona you can never assume the two will never be connected. A bit of internet detective work will connect you now to you then. At best this might be mildly embarrassing when they find those My Little Pony fanfics you wrote fifteen years ago. At worst it might have the kind of implications for your reputation that the revelation of Batman’s identity would have on his crime-fighting.
If you’ve been on the Internet for many years, and especially if you first started as a teenager, you will have changed plenty in that time. But even if you were already a grown up, you’ll still have moved on, evolved, learnt new things, met new people – the Internet itself will have been a big factor in that for many people. Looking back at some of the things you’ve said and done on the Internet years ago may well make you cringe, just as thinking back to some things you did in the real world a long time ago does. And with the Internet you generally can’t use the excuse of “I was very, very drunk at the time.” You read those old postings and wonder “How could I have been so whiny/ignorant/entitled/privileged/offensive/just plain dumb?”
You can try to delete that stuff of course and in some cases you can do it. For example you can purge your Live Journal along with every post you ever made on a community and every comment you ever made on the whole of Live Journal. But with many sites you won’t be able to do so, many forums for example. And forums are prime fertile ground for “unwise” comments you regret later.
But even if you’ve deleted something never assume it’s gone forever. Bad news! Someone somewhere may have it saved. I’ve personally got a load of Yahoo! group messages and Live Journal comments saved in my Gmail. Not to embarrass anyone with, but because, well, Gmail has enough space and the search is way better than on Yahoo! or Live Journal. But I know for a fact I have records of comments and posts that have now gone from their original sites, some of which the poster may regret ever posting now. Even in supposed private spaces, including email, don’t assume you’re safe. Friends fall out. Private conversations go public with the click of a Forward or Reply to All button either deliberately or accidentally
And of course there’s the Internet archive, aka The Way Back Machine, archiving websites since 1996. A godsend when you’re trying to find that old Geocities page with the great My Little Pony fanfics on it that’s now disappeared. A curse if someone else finds an idiotic post you made in 1997 and thought you’d deleted long ago. One that’s guaranteed to offend everyone in your book’s genre should it ever get out. With luck nobody will ever dig out this old stuff, but never assume it can’t happen.
If it does, if the ghost of Internet past comes to haunt you, what then? Well first off, don’t try to deny you said it. Before you know it, people will be bandying around IP addresses and you’ll be bang to rights. And don’t start defending the indefensible. If you’d now take issue with the same post if written by someone else then don’t start defending it just because you wrote it. It’s fine to no longer agree with yourself. And don’t get defensive in another way either by pulling the “OMG! Oppression!” response. Nobody is censoring you by calling you on what you said. Disagreement is not censorship, it’s other people using the same right to free speech as you have. Of course if you do still agree with what you said then by all means stand by it and brace to take the inevitable flak!
More likely you no longer think that way. In which case the most gracious way to handle it is just to own it. Yes, you wrote it. You can see now that it’s stupid or offensive. You no longer think that way and hope people will judge you on the person you are now, not the one you used to be.
This isn’t only about things you did in the past. You can be a hundred different people on the internet after all and say things under a different identity that you won’t say under your well-behaved author persona. But don’t think you can create a sock puppet to run amok with and never have it traced back to you. The hand under the sock puppet is nearly always exposed eventually.
To get Biblical again, the Golden Rule is always a good guide to any interactions in life: Do as you would be done to. Treat others with the respect and consideration you’d like them to give you. This works as well on the Internet as everywhere else. Or to make it even simpler think of writer and podcaster Mur Lafferty’s Rule 5- Don’t be an ass. Always watch out for signs you’re being an ass right now and have the self-awareness to admit when you’ve been an ass in the past.
Now, be good, and if you can’t be good, sorry… you’re probably going to get caught!