by Mike Coffey
A few years back, a high school football player made an official visit to Notre Dame during his senior year. He participated in all the usual events, met with various coaches, saw the campus inside and out. He departed campus at the end still a candidate for a Notre Dame scholarship.
His father accompanied the young man on his weekend journey. Upon his arrival home, he thought the ND fans he had among his friends would be interested in seeing an official visit from the “other side”. So he put together an email to a group of his buddies talking about what had gone on during the visit weekend. Included in that synopsis were opinions about things the coaching staff had or had not done, some of them very unfavorable.
His friends certainly enjoyed the email. But some of his ND friends had the same reaction the author had — my ND friends probably would find this interesting. So unbeknownst to dear old dad, at least one of those friends forwarded the email to his own list of ND emailers. At least one of them carried the idea forward, and the email got passed around the electronic ether until the sets of email recipients and NDNation posters finally (inevitably?) intersected, and the email itself was posted on Rock’s House.
Within a few hours, we got a frantic email from the recruit’s dad, begging us to remove the content and asking us how he could remove it from general circulation. We were happy to accommodate him on the former, but on the latter, we were powerless. The dad had fallen victim to the oldest of Internet adages:
If you’re saying it to one person, you’re saying it to the world, so be careful what you say
These were the days before sites like Facebook and Twitter, so what used to apply to emails applies a million times more today. Just as you have no control over what someone you email forwards, you also have no control over what your friends “share” or “re-tweet”, or even copy-and-paste. You may think you’re only addressing a dozen, but that can become a dozen dozen before you can blink. Data moves fast in the electronic age.
Of course, this is nothing new to NDN. We were dealing with this issue long before Mark Zuckerberg had his programming epiphany. But we’re really no closer to the answer than we were 12 years ago when we started.
The topic came up recently on the Pit, when one poster took another to task about an alleged tweet he’d made regarding a poor performance by an ND men’s basketball player. In the resulting discussion, some posts on some of the boards were pointed out to me as being unnecessarily critical. After reading them, I agreed they were inappropriate for the forum in which they were made. The posts were removed, and (in some cases) the posters disciplined.
But I did those things with a twinge of regret. While I didn’t want the posts made on NDN, the content really didn’t differ a lot from what people sitting around me at the game in question were saying to their seatmates. While there was no doubt the player in question was giving a good effort, he didn’t have a good game. How do you talk about that without crossing the line? Why is it all right to say something to the guy next to you at the bar, but not all right to say the same thing to him in an email the next day? If you’re willing to say to someone’s face what you say about him or her on the Internet, should it really be censored?
None of those questions are easy to answer after more than a decade of trying. I’m philosophically a free-market guy, and I believe our communities, in general, have become pretty good at self-regulating their content. Having said that, though, sometimes stuff can hang out there while it’s being self-regulated. I’m also not unaware that the families and friends of ND-related figures can and do read the site and can and are sometimes hurt by what they read.
So where do you draw the line?
I think people need to remember when you say something on the Internet, it’s going to be out there pretty much forever. Emails can be printed off and saved. Search engines can grab post content. Tweets and status updates don’t necessarily go away. The opinion you express today may not be your opinion tomorrow, but don’t tell that to the T1 lines and servers because they’re going to hold you to what you said for a long long time.
Remember that when you sit at your keyboard.