The Danger of Rapid Information Flow

The online world (or at least that corner of it where I hang out) has recently seen several incidents in which tempers flared rather quickly. I’m starting to think that we’re reaching a tipping point where our means of rapid communication have completely outstripped the social conventions that grew up in a slower time. If that’s true, it could be especially troubling for web workers, who by our nature tend to live out on the cutting edge.

The particular incidents that I’m thinking of don’t matter all that much except as examples. In one, well-known blogger Kathy Sierra went public about threats she’d received, and a substantial chunk of blogdom was plunged into war. In the second, an employee of Twitter remarked about scaling issues they were having with Rails, and some people seized on this as an opportunity to attack the framework in general and to play “let’s you and him fight” when David Heinemeier Hansson responded. In the third, Edelman PR guy Steve Rubel twittered an off-the-cuff remark about throwing copies of PC Magazine in the trash, and had to do some quick backpedaling when the editorial staff at PC Magazine noticed and threatened to cut off his clients from coverage.

What we’re seeing here, I think, is a combination of two things. First, our ability to throw information out there quickly continues to accelerate. From e-mail to blogs to Twitter, even our least-considered off-the-cuff remarks can be pushed out to a global audience with almost zero effort. Second, the delivery of that information to readers is more frictionless than ever. RSS readers pull our feeds constantly, the Googlebot hovers over our sites ready to scrape them at the hint of any change, and there’s always someone awake and reading at any hour of the day.

The net effect: you can’t take anything back any more. In the old days, when business was conducted on paper (really!), you could go down to the mailroom and yank a letter back from the outbox. Even in the early days of e-mail, you could intercept something before it left your server. Now, you press the button on a Web 2.0 site and hundreds of readers devour, consider, and react to your words. If there’s any controversy to be found, any argument to be made, any anger to be provoked, you can be sure that it will happen.

Where does this leave the web worker? In the unenviable position of holding a live hand grenade with the pin out and thinking that it’s a softball. Many of us play around with Flickr and Twitter and blogs and Tumblr and all the rest, pushing information and opinions out into the world as fast as we can because it’s an interesting thing to do and because the technology is neat, never thinking that some day this might backfire on us. But what happens when more customers and personnel departments and business partners start swimming in this deep pool of information? Are we really prepared to have this stuff shared with everyone?

Many years ago, in science fiction fandom, I was introduced to Markstein’s Law: “Never put anything in print that you do not want your worst enemy to use against you some day.” If the recent convulsions of unpleasantness in the blogosphere are anything to judge by, the time is approaching when sensible people will start living by that maxim on the web as well. The question is, do you value your safety and security or your freewheeling web expressiveness more? I don’t have any easy answers, but I do know that people who don’t think about these issues ignore them at their peril.