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Think Before You Send


Everyone Needs To Consider Two Points About Writing And Digital Media.

By Thomas J. Roach

Stop, don’t hit that send key!

Everyone needs to consider two points about writing and digital media: One thing doesn’t change; writing always has been and will continue to be a form of enduring communication. And one thing has changed; writing used to be a slow contemplative process, and now it is dangerously fast.

We need to remind ourselves of this, because the speed of writing transactions beguiles most of us into treating email, tweeting and texting like we are having a conversation. However, unlike real conversations, which are spoken and scattered into the netherworld of memory, emails, tweets and texts are accurate, undeniable and infinitely reproducible.

Before Digital

Before digital communication, we engaged in written dialogue through books, periodicals and letters. Exchanges in print went through layers of editors. Time passed between letters creating space for evaluation and for composing careful arguments.

When we read the sonnets of Shakespeare or the letters of President Theodore Roosevelt, we are digesting thoughts that were carefully articulated and preserved. Ironically, our digital writing is easier to preserve and therefore more permanent, but most of it is composed in haste.

President Ronald Reagan once made a tasteless joke about bombing the Soviet Union while standing before a Public Radio microphone. The statement didn’t go on the air, but it was recorded and leaked it to news media, and the Soviet military went on alert. Digital media is like that microphone. What we say might be intended for a small audience, but once it is said we have no way of controlling where it goes.

Instant Compliance

Some institutions have an instant compliance policy. Your email recipient may intend to keep your confidence, but if the institution is contacted by a court that wants all email with a particular key word, then someone goes into the mainframe does a search and sends your email along with a thousand others to an attorney with no ties to you or your recipient’s organization. You and the person you sent the email to may not be asked, warned or even informed about the process.

Most of us are sophisticated enough not to replicate the kind of mistakes made by Brett Favre and Congressman Anthony Weiner, but we still might digitally criticize the competition or a customer or our own senior leadership.

We write things that are harmless in a personal exchange, yet we should be asking ourselves, would I say this in front of a microphone? If the answer is no, then don’t hit the send key. Pick up the phone or drop by someone’s office instead.

Digital communication has the appearance of privacy, because it takes place in private, and the speed of the exchange makes it conversational. Our intuition tells us to say what is on our minds, but intuition in this case is misleading.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is currently refusing to release her private email exchanges probably because she made the mistake of putting private thoughts in writing. This is after eight years of dealing with investigations during Bill Clinton’s presidency and in spite of being surrounded by public relations professionals.

Mass Audiences

Mass audiences represent a problem for both printed and broadcast messages. This is why speechwriting teams pour over public announcements for days. In his first campaign for president, Barack Obama said that an abortion question was above his “pay grade.”

The statement made the point that some issues are too personal to legislate, and his campaign staff may have agreed with him. However, prolife groups were outraged at what to them was a grossly insensitive statement.

We need to stop before we send and consider how our words will look to our peers and how will the meaning change in different rhetorical situations. People sometimes use expressions like “it was written in sand” or “it isn’t written in stone” to convey a lack of permanence.

A more apt analogy is “it’s not like it is on the web.”