Just for a minute, put yourself in the shoes of Anthony Weiner. You’ve done something exceptionally stupid, whether it’s sending sexually explicit photos of yourself to strangers you don’t even know, or another unrelated mistake. To compound the stupidity, you involve social networking – you Facebook or tweet or YouTube the act – or even simply email details of what you’ve done.
Everyone of us makes impulsively bad decisions (probably not as bad as Weiner, but bad nonetheless). Prior to the internet, you at least had a chance to recover from your past transgressions, as there wasn’t a readily accessible public record of the act unless you happened to be caught on tape (think Nixon, Rodney King, etc.). But now that pretty much every human carries either a camera or video recorder with them at all times (mobile phones), can communicate instantly with a massive audience (Facebook, Twitter, SMS, blogs), and have access to more information than exists in the Library of Congress just by pulling up Google, the equation of how you control sensitive information about yourself has changed radically. Every stranger (and even friend) is like a full service news station with video, distribution and commentary, just waiting to report on your missteps.
Here are three lessons the rest of us can take from the Anthony Weiner affair:
- Fame raises the bar. Celebrity, for all of it’s glory, puts a spotlight on your conduct. When you get paid for attracting attention, you are bound to attract unwanted attention. Unless your brand consciously involves a rebel persona (Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Dennis Rodman – in other words, the more trouble you get in, the more money you make), you will be held to a higher standard than those of us who fly under the radar. Fame has its faults. Remember when Gary Hart challenged the press to prove he wasn’t a standup guy? Now everyone who has even the most basic tech tools is an instant paparazzi.
- Mind the 3 Laws of Posting Online. When you post anything online, what you have published is most often immediately public, permanent and exploitable. You may think that you have a claim to privacy online, but you are deluding yourself. What you upload is only as private as the company or individual housing the data. Once you post, there is no “taking it back”. Weiner removed his tweets quickly, but posts, pictures and videos are backed up, re-tweeted, liked, screen captured and otherwise saved long before you can put a stop to it. Finally, as this case reinforces, what you post online can and will be used against you if it falls into the wrong hands. In Weiner’s case, the wrong hands were those of a political enemy, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Because Weiner chose to make the posts public (even accidentally), Breitbart has a free pass to commit perfectly legal extortion. Before it is all over, the Democratic party will lose one of it’s brightest stars. That is probably a just result, but there is still a question about the forceful nature of the means involved.
- Admitting fault early and often. If you’ve done something wrong and it is recorded online, “hang a lantern on it” as quickly as possible. This is a phrase that Chris Matthews used in his book on political survival, Hardball. To summarize Matthews position, if you make a mistake and it goes public, admit to it as quickly as possible, take ownership of the wrongdoing and don’t lapse into the web of lies brought on by panic. Hang a lantern on it – expose it to the light, take your lumps and move on. In the end, what will bring Weiner down will likely not be his obscene tweets or explicit photos. Rather, it will be the fact that he blatantly lied about his posts. Had he come clean immediately, he would be judged as a person who made some mistakes just like the rest of us, not as a Congressman who deliberately mislead his constituents.
And there is a larger, more important lesson in all of this. In a world where your every action is subject to capture, publication and mass distribution, it’s far easier to be a moral, upstanding, well-adjusted individual than it is to attempt to hide a dysfunctional dark side. Ultimately, a bit of restraint, discretion and even therapy will be much cheaper than living a double life.
John Sileo speaks, writes and consults professionally on information leadership: managing the exposure of personal and corporate information. His clients include the Department of Defense, Pfizer, Homeland Security and Blue Cross. Learn more at www.ThinkLikeASpy.com or contact him directly on 1.800.258.8076. Expose yourself wisely.