The power of the internet for good and bad

imgres-1imagesOver the past few months I’ve learned more about the power of the internet.  I’ve discovered firsthand that what we put “out there” lasts a long, long time.

I knew about the maxims discussed in this blog intellectually, but I didn’t have direct experience with them until the last few weeks.  It has really hit home for me how important it is not to slander anyone because you never know who will read your words.  Here’s a (slightly) drawn-out example: some of my blog posts have discussed specific authors and their books.  Not one, not two, but three of these writers contacted me within just one week after my blogging about them.  They found me through the magic of Google alerts.

What is a Google alert, you may ask?  Here’s my non-techie definition:

One can use this feature to create different category “alerts” so that Google searches the vast internet daily (or more frequently, you can set the parameters) for any mention of these categories.  Google emails you the alert links so you can track them down yourself.  For example, you can set up an alert to find a mention of your name, a book title, and pretty much any subject under the sun!  I have Google alerts set for my favorite bands, postpartum bipolar, and my name.

Google has a better description of their alerts that I thought I’d add here in case you’re not familiar with them:

“Google alerts are emails sent to you when Google finds new results — such as web pages, newspaper articles, or blogs — that match your search term. You can use Google Alerts to monitor anything on the Web. For example, people use Google Alerts to:

  • find out what is being said about their company or product.
  • monitor a developing news story.
  • keep up to date on a competitor or industry.
  • get the latest news on a celebrity or sports team.
  • find out what’s being said about themselves.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You enter a query that you’re interested in.
  2. Google Alerts checks regularly to see if there are new results for your query.
  3. If there are new results, Google Alerts sends them to you in an email.”

It was so much fun for me to get the following blog comment from the writer Cristina Negrón. She was alerted about my blog post which mentioned her wonderful book So Far.  She wrote, “Dyane: I was truly surprised and delighted to discover your blog post about my book. Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful, and beautifully written review. Being so close to the material (I couldn’t possibly be closer!), I didn’t know how it would be received by people who don’t know me. So your post, from an outside reader and a fellow writer no less, is especially gratifying. All the best to you, Cristina Negrón”

The other two author comments in response to my blog were written by  Martha Rhodes (author of the inspiring 3000 Pulses Later: A Memoir of Surviving Depression Without Medication) and Elizabeth Sims (the upbeat You’ve Got a Book in You! A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams).  Both of their comments were complementary.  Rhodes graciously offered to give me guidance with my own book and Sims’ message was funny and encouraging.

“I could get used to this awesome feedback!’ I thought.  I was also greatly relieved that I did not write anything harsh about them or their work!  Don’t get me wrong – I believe in constructive criticism, and I do like to be honest about the books that I read, but now that I know for a fact there’s a good chance the very authors I analyze could read my posts, I’ll be a little more cautious about what I offer to the internet.

After my warm and fuzzy week of author responses, I encountered the net’s darker side.  I was planning my daughter’s ninth birthday party, and I opened up my Evite account.  While reviewing my contacts list, I noticed that I had invited one of her classmates “Xavier” to a past party.  For the life of me I couldn’t remember who Xavier was.  There were no identifying details attached to his name except for an email address.  To satisfy my frustration at my inability to remember Xavier or his parent, I copied the email address and I plugged it into Google.  I honestly didn’t think I’d find anything, but I did.  Xavier was the son of “Cassia”.  Cassia had posted on a religious website many years ago, and my Google search located her comment almost immediately.

Cassia wrote that she was in desperate need of help due to a longtime disorder.  She added that none of her good friends were religious like she was, nor did any of them struggle with that specific disorder.  She noted that she was reaching out to strangers on the website because she didn’t feel like she could turn to any of her friends for support.

Finding this deeply personal information out about Cassia made me feel sad.  I felt that I knew too much about a stranger.  I was alarmed about running into her at a future party, because I realized our kids were in the same circles.

A few days later I spotted her email yet again on an Evite I had  received for a upcoming child’s birthday celebration.  I was concerned about running into her there, because I knew I’d be uncomfortable with the private knowledge I possessed, but obviously there was nothing I could do about it.

It’s one thing to write for the internet and reconcile yourself that you’re going public with whatever you contribute; it’s completely different when you are writing about highly personal, potentially damaging issues that are discovered by strangers within fifteen seconds.

I find the ease of finding such personal information sobering after what I read about Cassia – most of which I did not include here in the highly unlikely (but definitely possible) event she would read this blog post.  I’m a little freaked out about what I’ve sent out to cyberspace during times of mania, but it’s too late now to do anything about it.  I’m not going to spend much time lamenting about those emails because I wasn’t well.  I can let that one go for now, at least.  (It does occur to me that someday I may apply for a job in which my unsavory emails could be located, but I can’t worry about it…yet.)

After my positive and disturbing web experiences, I am simply going to be a little more careful about what I write.  I won’t select the “send” option glibly on my laptop, that’s for sure.  I don’t want to edit my writing to the point of it being monotonous, God forbid, but I don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings.  I can save the really angry, slanderous comments for my journal or therapist.  I’ve been naive all along about the internet, but my naivete is slowly but surely changing.  There’s also the added bonus that as I  get older (I turn 44 in one month) I just might be getting wiser.