- 1 Sep 08, 16:42 GMT
What's public and what's private on the web? And, with that in mind, how careful should we be about the way we express ourselves and how much we give away? Two questions on my mind lately..
The other day, for instance, I wrote a light-hearted piece on this blog about the Scrabulous affair, the main point of which was to offer readers a simple, and hopefully amusing, puzzle, while throwing in a couple of observations about the dispute which has seen the Agarwalla brothers pitted against the might of Hasbro and Mattel.
Soon after the piece was published, I received a message from a Twitter "friend"- the slightly disconcerting thing about Twitter is that anybody can be your friend or "follower", as they're known, unless you actively block them. The message read "Why did you not mention Wordscraper?", referring to a new game the Agarwallas had invented which was intended to avoid charges of infringing copyright.
I was a little irritated by this, as my piece was intended as a bit of fun rather than an exhaustive inquiry into the Scrabulous affair - which, after all, is hardly Watergate. So I Tweeted back: "cos I couldn't be bothered", and thought no more about it. Now Twitter is a social network, which I use quite extensively as a kind of instant messaging service with friends, and that dictates the nature of the "tweets" - casual, throwaway remarks, not meant for posterity. I am smart enough to know that Twitter is not a private place - but still like to express myself there as freely as possible.
Anyway, I head nothing more after that reply, until this turned up on something called "The Quaequam Blog": "When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn't mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied 'cos i couldn't be bothered!' Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone."
Wow, so my throwaway remark has been turned into the basis for an indictment of the whole of British journalism.
A couple of days later the shoe was on the other foot. I reacted to a press release by describing it on Twitter as "new leader in rubbish PR stunt of 08". The PR man in question e-mailed me a couple of days later to say "Got your feedback via Twitter. You cut me deep!!!". I had forgotten that he too might be watching my "Tweets", but luckily he took it reasonably well.
So a useful reminder that Twitter - like so many other online forums - is a public place, and what you say there may be used in evidence against you. Now I write in a number of voices online - very straight and BBC in news pieces for the website, a rather more relaxed tone for this blog, and a downright shoddy, ungrammatical, and sometimes incoherent voice in places like Twitter. But perhaps I can no longer afford to be quite so careless. There is the option on Twitter to "protect" your updates - in other words to control who can see what you are saying. I haven't yet done that - it seems to go against the spirit of openness - but may need to consider it.
The other lesson we all need to learn is that giving too much away online leaves you open to identity theft. I got a message from Facebook the other day warning "we have detected suspicious activity on your Facebook account". The suggestion was that someone might be trying to steal my password or install malicious software onto my computer.
So, even if you're happy enough to take the risk of broadcasting your private jokes, thoughts, and opinions on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, try not to give away your date of birth or your home address. Not everyone out there has the best of intentions...
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