There are several interesting lessons embedded in the current Wikileaks scandal that everyone who is active on social media should take to heart. The first one, of course, is the old saying that you should never say or write anything you don't want to appear on the front page of the New York Times.
I was thinking about this in context of the leak of the State Department cables. What shocked me wasn't so much what was said - I'm certain that other countries have strong feelings and have used salty or derogatory language about our officials - but how it was said. In many of these cables the language is almost akin to what one would expect from a stoner surfer or a valley girl. The language used doesn't reflect the tone, or the importance of the message or medium. If this is what they send back and forth as confidential, good Lord knows what they are sending out in the clear. Could we perhaps revert back to the King's, or Queen's, English so that if our dirty laundry is exposed we at least appear able to string sentences together without the use of the written "um" or the word "like"?
Second, the old saw about the New York Times is interesting, but misses the point. If you did something stupid enough to end up on the front page of the New York Times in decades gone by, you might get the opprobrium of the intelligentsia in New York and more civilized capitals, but odds were that many people would never know. The Times circulation was never that large, and the vast majority of Americans never read it, leave out the rest of the world. Now, say or write something stupid and everyone has the ability to hear it, read it and parse it as it gets passed through Youtube, Facebook and email.
Next, what's going to play out (and has already played out once) is that people will turn these challenges into opportunities. Take, for example, the woman who wore a bikini to board an airplane during the height of the "pat down" furore. Do you really believe she was that concerned about a "pat down", or perhaps saw this episode as a way to get publicity during heightened awareness of the issue and perhaps launch a career? One bets that she is an aspiring actress who saw this as a way to get noticed. Probably hoped her interview would go viral, and some director would cast her or some reality show would have her on. How long before people actively, intentionally do really stupid but really public things simply to get noticed, and doesn't social media promote that behavior?
Another item of learning from WikiLeaks is don't put anything in print you don't have to, and when you do have to write something down be as circumspect as possible. No one in their right mind will actively state what they really think anymore on paper, unless they are trying for instant celebrity (see paragraph immediately above). Thanks to Wikileaks, all that has happened is that people were caught telling the truth in Washington, which is something to be studiously avoided. Now that it is evident that you can't write the truth and consider it protected, no truths will be written. In a strange way Assange is creating an even more repressive information state, where information will be created and transmitted, but now simply through word of mouth, for total plausible deniability. Nothing written, no witnesses, no historical record.
Finally, the last learning from the Wikileaks dump and the burgeoning social media scene is that either everything is public or nothing is public. There was the example a few years ago of a woman who placed a webcam in her apartment so she lived completely online. But even in that case we didn't know what was going on in her head, so is she really completely transparent? If you prepare to live your life online and completely exposed, understand the implications and the ramifications. If you choose to pretend that you can defend what you think and write, be very circumspect about your opinions and very exacting about your facts. If it is written down, it is accessible, and if it is accessible, eventually it will find it's way to the public. Please, for goodness sakes, write in comprehensible English about the intolerable Spanish ambassador and his predilections, so when the documents are revealed you will have been proven to have: 1) great grammar 2) good word choice and 3) the facts on your side. Then all you'll be guilty of is expressing the truth, which is studiously to be avoided in diplomatic circles.