The Internet is forever. You can't shove it in the microwave. Even if you take down a post, website, or poorly-considered picture, the odds are good that someone, somewhere, may have it in their cache...and may decide to re-post it, just because they can. "Because I can" is a totally valid reason for doing almost anything on the Internet. This is where the wild things are. The wild things have cookies. The wild things also have your really horrible fifth grade school photo, and they'd love an excuse to put it up.
The Internet is not as private as you think it is. I recently read a thread wherein an agent (not mine) said that she had decided not to work with someone because she saw a blog post they'd made, complaining about agency response times and being fairly unpleasant about it. Without saying anything about whether the response times were out of line—largely because I really don't know—I will say that I understand where the agent was coming from: I wouldn't want to enter into a professional relationship with someone whose response to irritation was to identify me by name while complaining loudly. It wouldn't be fun for either one of us. The agent went on to say that she had been notified of this post by a Google spider (magical Google spiders do that sort of thing), and that she later discovered that the blog post was, in fact, locked. Several people promptly started castigating her for being "unprofessional." Some even implied that she had broken into this person's account, or otherwise violated her privacy. Which, well...not so much.
If there was a privacy violation in this instance, it was on the part of the blogging site where the original entry was made—the blogging site that did not lock itself against Google spiders. (Now, I'm not very technical; it could be that the site can't be locked against spiders. If that's the case, I still say the blogging site was at fault, because they probably didn't include "locking a post will not prevent it being mined by search engines" in their privacy setting descriptions.) If there was a judgment error, it was on the part of the person who said "I'm going to use my blog to slam on someone I'm hoping to work with by name, rather than either being really, really vague, or by calling my best friend and ranting until I feel calm." Clicking on an email in your inbox? Not a privacy violation. Reading what it says? Also not a privacy violation. And sadly, the "unsee" button has yet to be invented for the human brain.
The Internet is never private. In the sixteen-plus years that I've been online, I've had embarrassing pictures crop up; I've sent emails and instant messages to the wrong people; I've messed up the privacy settings on blog posts; I've said things I regretted later, and had no way of taking back, ever. I've seen people I care about get burned really badly, either because their missteps were bigger than mine, or because they dodged a little more slowly. It's going to happen to all of us, forever, because that's what the Internet is. So I give you...
Seanan's Reminders for Surviving the Internet.
1. Remember that the thing you least want to have repeated is going to wind up being the one that that gets posted everywhere. The snarky off-handed comment or the bitchy update to your Facebook? The one you think only eight people will see? See, as soon as you think "at least only ____ will see this," it's time to re-think. It's okay to let it all out. Just consider whether you want to do it on a public forum, or via email or instant message to someone you trust.
2. It's not as private as you think it is. Blog posts, Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, they're all a lot less secure than we like to think they are. People lose jobs because of pictures they put up on their Facebook. Authors lose readers because of things they say on their blogs. I am absolutely not saying "censor yourself into mashed potatoes." We are all people; we all have a right to the ball, and honestly, if you think I'm a freak because I love Disney and horror movies and chainsaws and frilly pink dresses and pumpkins and Halloween, you're probably right. We wouldn't have been good for each other anyway. But I've given serious thought to how much I wanted to share about all these things, and while I am absolutely honest, there are some things that just don't need to be shouted from the mountaintops.
3. Bridges burn easy, and they make a lovely light. We're all human here. If I stomp all over someone else's party, people will remember that. The person who was having the party is probably never going to want to invite me over again...and half their guests may well feel the same. When the person throwing that party is a professional in your chosen field, this is maybe not the best idea ever.
4. Tone doesn't always come through. I make a joke, you take offense and think I hate you forever. You make a snarky comment, I think it's hysterical and never leave you alone again. If people seem to be reacting to you in a way that is the opposite of what you expected, it may be time to step back and a) apologize for the confusion, followed by b) clarifying the situation. A vague disclaimer remains nobody's friend.
5. The Internet is forever. Keep it in mind.