In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his magnum opus, “The Scarlet Letter”. A twisting, dark, exploration of the human condition, sin, revenge, and ultimately, redemption, it is a book to be read, savored, and reread. The story in simple terms is of a young woman who commits adultery, has a child from the affair, and is force by the townspeople to wear a scarlet colored “A” on her dress (“A” for adultery) for the rest of her life. In a heartbeat, a poor choice reverberated with consequences that not only tainted her life, but that of her child, her lover, and her husband, not to mention the townspeople who tormented her.
Interesting, but this isn’t an English literature or morality blog. Why am I bringing up this 160 year old book? Because with the same carelessness, we can brand ourselves with the digital equivalent of the scarlet “A”.
Consider this, how long do things stay on Google? On Bing? On other search engines? Does the blog you’re reading at any given moment—and commenting on—have archives? Ever hear of the internet Way Back Machine? Each one of these can trap your comments like an insect in amber.
Think about it. Have you ever found yourself in a fight on the internet? Lord knows, I have. Email is bad (sorry, Russell!), but nothing can quite compare to a good, old fashion flame war on a forum or comment board. It starts with a simple disagreement on something innocent, perhaps the proper implementation of RFC 2549. By the time one or both parties is banned or leaves in disgust, someone will have been compared to Hitler and grown people will have been reduced to the level of children scuffling in the school yard.
Even more serious damage has been done than just hurt feelings or being banned from a site. Things on the internet are in many cases, there forever. A year from now, five years from now, a decade down the road, someone may stumble across your tirade on an eBay users group. One day, a potential employer doing a deep screen could take note of your colorful comparison of your foe’s mother to Parisian streetwalker’s female dog.
How likely is it that someone will link you to your temper tantrum from a few years ago? Hard to say for sure, but do you ever use the same user name on more than one site? Register with the same email? Is it worth the risk?
In all of human history, no one has ever won a fight on the internet. No one has ever changed someone else’s mind. No one has ever been involved in a mud slinging match and managed to stay clean. Lower your weapon and back away. Trust me on this one.
In the end, the choice is yours. You can experience the thrill of taunting some other person with things you would likely never say face to face. You can try on the electronic, scarlet letter, when your intemperate comments surface ages later or you can be the bigger person and quietly maintain your dignity now and preserve the only things of any real value in a virtual world: Your identity and reputation.