Think Twice Before You Post That

Photo by Adam Jarmon Brown

Trey Pennington, whom I follow on Twitter, recently recommended the Social Media Examiner blog post Facebook Community Pages: What Your Business Needs to Know. (It’s quite a useful post if you do business on Facebook, and worth reading.) In doing so, Pennington quoted from it the nine most calm, clever, useful words imaginable:

“If you don’t want something shared, don’t share it.”

Landlords, employers, creditors, insurance companies, colleges, law enforcement, that amazing girl you asked out – they all search Google and social media to find out more about you before deciding to take (or keep) you on. Potential thieves, resentful exes, jealous colleagues, prankster friends can all take screen shots, download content or keep tabs on you. (Note: click on the links in the first sentence of this paragraph to read real-life examples.)

So think twice before you post. All of us need to remember that whatever we publish online, no matter how seemingly innocuous it is, MAY end up being seen, saved or copied by anyone. Even if your account is set to private. Even if you only have a few Twitter followers. Even if “nobody” reads your blog.

A few examples:

  • Regardless of whether your Twitter account is set to private, your tweets could still show up in the RSS feed of people you haven’t allowed to follow you. It won’t be every tweet, but if they have a keyword search saved via RSS, it might pull in even protected tweets that contain the designated search string. I’ve seen it happen in my own search feeds.
  • A Facebook “friend” of a friend of mine downloaded one my friend’s photos, and it ended up being published elsewhere without his knowledge or permission.
  • Another friend, finding himself in the position of job-hunting, took his Twitter profile private since he regularly uses it to detail his, shall we say, extracurricular activities. Which is fine prospectively; future tweets will be private (excepting the afore-mentioned search loophole). What he may not realize is that all his previous tweets, which were public, have already been indexed by the search engines. If an employer is searching for them, they’ll be found. And there’s nothing to stop someone with access from taking a screen-shot of the now-private tweet stream anyway (happens all the time to celebrities on the gossip blogs).
  • I’ve previously blogged about how publicly posting your whereabouts, including via geo-location tags, can put you or your home at risk.

So before you choose to badmouth your boss, brag about your booze-up, complain about your client, or wax rhapsodic during your Hawaiian holiday: think twice, and make sure you’re prepared to live with the consequences of everyone knowing it.


  1. You know I love the conversation… truly.

    As with most of our conversations around this topic, it all boils down to revenue. FB does what it does not to be impolite (despite Zuckerberg’s assertion that privacy is dead), but to have ways to monetize its services. Marketers want to be able to drill down and FB delivers us and our metadata on a platter.

    My personal feeling is that locked-down privacy should be the default, and we should each affirmatively elect which and how much data to share.

    But of course that doesn’t work for a “free” service that needs to recover its costs and make a profit. And I say “free” in quotes because while we don’t pay FB in money, we pay it in privacy and data.

    While it would be nice to say “let us pay with money instead,” I know the truth is that many who use FB, Twitter, 4Sq etc. couldn’t afford or wouldn’t want to pay.

  2. I’m really blowing up your blog tonight! I hope you don’t mind a little conversation 🙂

    I wasn’t raising the question of whether Facebook’s practices are legally sound, which is perhaps an interesting one, but one that they’ve doubtless paid a lot of lawyers to ensure resolves in the favor. As long as we’re accepting that clicking through on the ToS and Privacy Policy while joining a site is legally binding, I think that’s a pretty airtight case.

    However, it can still be anti-social. I remember hearing about the “new Facebook” in 2006–this was the introduction of the News Feed–over the phone from a friend. Her first comment was “It’s so embarrassing!” And while it’s certainly a popular feature, I think her analysis holds: Facebook is a service we use that has a habit of doing embarrassing things with the information we give it. In civil society, we’re supposed to frown on that.

    As people become more familiar with Facebook, it’s possible (and frightening) that our conceptions of privacy and our expectations of social behavior will diminish. But for now, I think that making you agree to terms that give me a blank slate to do whatever I want is, while legal, anti-social.

    So yes, if I gave you the impression that I was saying Facebook doesn’t have the legal right to re-post and publicize the data we feed it, that bears correction. Of course they can do that. But I do think that abusing that right is not polite behavior.

  3. Thank you for the comment, Parker – I couldn’t agree more with you.

    I do however, have to correct your assertion that publishing something on Facebook doesn’t give them the right to re-publicize it or push it to your friends. Depending on your privacy settings, publishing anything on Facebook may result in exactly that.

    “Some of the content you share and the actions you take will show up on your friends’ home pages and other pages they visit.

    Even after you remove information from your profile or delete your account, copies of that information may remain viewable elsewhere to the extent it has been shared with others, it was otherwise distributed pursuant to your privacy settings, or it was copied or stored by other users.

    You understand that information might be reshared or copied by other users.

    When you post information on another user’s profile or comment on another user’s post, that information will be subject to the other user’s privacy settings.

    If you use an external source to publish information to Facebook (such as a mobile application or a Connect site), you should check the privacy setting for that post, as it is set by that external source.”

    Further, if you’re an artist and you upload a song to FB, you have to grant them a perpetual, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to the song:

    “I confirm that under Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, I have granted to Facebook a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, distribute, transmit, and publicly perform all sound recordings that I upload to Facebook. I understand that I am solely responsible for all licensing, reporting, and payment obligations, if any, to third parties.”

    At least Facebook provides you with the option to delete data. Evite doesn’t.

  4. This is absolutely true, and something you should consider before sharing anything in any venue, really, but it’s also important to note that this should not be an excuse or justification of anti-user privacy practices by companies. danah boyd has some excellent work (including her SXSW keynote this year) about the difference between “public” and “publicized.” Just because you’ve made something “publicly available” doesn’t grant the Facebooks (and Twitters, in theory) of the world a license to publicize it further, or push it to your social connections.

    By the same token, there are plenty of conversations that happen in so-called “third spaces” that are theoretically public, but I don’t really want to be broadcast. You should always be aware of the possibility, and post with care, but we should also expect not to be treated anti-socially by our social networking sites.

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