Mother Malley's Immutable Law of Internet Sharing: 4 Little Words That Could Save Your Weiner

My job at Big State U, where I worked sometime late in the last century, was the first where Internet email was a standard part of the work toolkit. Fortunately, I’d had other jobs before where I had used intra-office email, so I knew from experience how easy it was to screw things up badly with a single mouse click.

Still, one day I found myself emailing with a friend who was often trying to set me up with women she knew. This friend was also a frequent contributor to an email listserv, so I saw her emails in my inbox all the time. As I hit “send” on a reply to her, I realized, to my horror, that I had a written a personal reply to an email she had posted to this listserv. At the time, a lot of email listservs were set up so that replying to a message broadcast that reply to the entire list. And in this reply, I was picking up a thread from one of my ongoing “private” conversations with my friend about one of the women she was trying to set me up with, asking questions about what she was like, how old she was, etc. (No, I didn’t ask if she had big tits, but it would have been just as humiliating.)

I was SURE I had just sent out something embarrassing to an entire subscriber base of strangers. I was absolutely sick. I just sat there for several agonizing minutes, watching my inbox for my errant reply to appear as the latest listserv message.

But it didn’t. Instead, it bounced. Luckily, it turned out this listserv DID NOT allow replies to the list. I was spared. But it still makes me nauseous to think about it. I took it as a cautionary episode, and it has been a lesson that served me well.

Which brings us to Rep. Anthony Weiner, the most recent in a long line of notable figures who have shared personally embarrassing content on the Internet. All of these people made the same mistake: confusing a one-to-all communications medium for a private, one-to-one communications medium.

As a faithful listener to sex guru Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast, I am not here to condemn the sexuality behind the actions of Weiner, fellow NY Congressman and disgraced social sharer Christopher Lee, or similar dumbasses. Different, um, strokes for different folks, and all that.

But, holy cow, do these behaviors fail to overcome any rational risk/benefit analysis! Consider this passage from today’s front-pager on Weiner in the NYT:

“Even if Mr. Weiner remains in office, however, political consultants said his ultimate ambition, to succeed Michael R. Bloomberg as mayor, has very likely been extinguished.

“‘There is zero chance today of a Mayor Weiner,’ said… a veteran political analyst who has worked on New York City mayoral campaigns for decades.”


A life’s ambition, likely snuffed out over a lame crotch bulge photo.

OK, you’re thinking, big deal, I’m not a congressman or a celebrity. Doesn’t matter. IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU! There are 1,001 seemingly innocuous things you could do online that could cost you your job, destroy your relationships and generally wreak all kinds of havoc on your life. It could all happen with a single, irretrievable click. Click! and you’re living in a nightmare. Worse, it will be a nightmare of your own making, and one you could have avoided by remembering four little words. These are words my mother drilled into me about conducting my personal behavior, but they adapt beautifully to online behavior:

WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!

•Is it possible this email could be taken the wrong way? WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!
•Am I too emotional right now to judge whether I should send or post this? WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!
•If my trusting relationship with this person is violated, could this email/post/photo/etc. be used at some later date to embarrass me? WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!
•Is it possible there are unforeseen costs to this ultimately meaningless and pointless activity that could put everything I have at risk? WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!
•Even if I can deal with the unforeseen consequences myself, is there a possibility that they could hurt others who have supported me with their love, friendship, reputations and/or money? WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!

Now, I wish I could say that I’ve followed my mom’s law with 100% fealty. It’s not true. I’ve made mistakes. Fortunately, none of them have been of Weiner-esque proportions. And I’ll probably make mistakes in the future. But I can confidently say I’ve avoided countless other, potentially larger mistakes by pausing with my finger over the the mouse button and hearing my mom’s words ring out:

WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!


Erase. Delete. Take a deep breath. What have you lost by not sending/posting/sharing it? Nothing. What have you gained? Possibly everything. That’s what they call a no-brainer, kids.

WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T!