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Have You Embarrassed Yourself Online?

Many web services offer an accidental megaphone. They need to protect us from ourselves.
April 17, 2013

I haven’t used Facebook’s Groups feature, but today brings news that the company is boosting its visibility by adding the section to users’ Timeline pages. On some intuitive level, this bothers me: Groups is about having private conversations among friends and colleagues, reportedly. Yet the Timeline is one of the most visible, public parts of a Facebook user’s page. So what gives?

Facebook may have thought this through–I think it’s merely making the fact of the service more public, not its content–but it puts me in mind of a problem I seem to see trending in my digital life and that of my friends: the accidental overshare. Digital faux pas: they’ve been cropping up in my life, and I wonder if they’ve been cropping up in yours.

This is a problem that dates back at least to the advent of the reply-all (and canonized in this Super Bowl ad from a few years back). UrbanDictionary even has an entry for “Reply-All Moment,” that instant of panic that follows the realization that you sent a private message to a wider group. We’ve all done it; in fact, a group of my friends are riffing about one such faux pas that just occurred in an email chain I’m on today.

Email is only one way we communicate today, though, and only one among many web services that include some sort of social, shared, or collaborative component (cf. this “cloud” you may have heard of). And in the past several months, I and people in my social circles have accidentally shared private information we only intended to share with one person, a select few people, or no people at all. There was the week during which I scheduled the likes of personal doctor’s appointments in a communal calendar (partly a symptom of my having bought a new computer, and some hiccups in getting my old device-synching techniques to work under my new setup). There was the moment an old professor accidentally posted sensitive banking information to a shared Dropbox folder. He was lucky that I immediately clicked on an alert pushed to my desktop, saw what he had done, and emailed him about the breach. “This is the way things become a disaster,” he wrote me.

Gmail, Facebook, Dropbox, iCal: please save us from ourselves. I am a reasonably tech-savvy person; so is my professor. Yet there’s a learning curve with any new technology, and even when we feel we’ve mastered something, there are moments of absent-mindedness in which we slip. He and I can’t be the only one who have engaged in Google Calendar or Dropbox-related mistakes. (Side note: kicking off a contest – what should we term such digital oversharing? The e-faux pas? The cloud gaffe?)

I’m not a software engineer, but I can already think of a half-dozen ways services like these can help us, and become more useful and trustworthy in the process. They might compel us to take mini-training courses before use. They might use some sort of scanning software to determine if we’re sharing banking information widely (which we would probably never, ever want to do). They might detect anomalies (“You rarely post on this communal calendar – are you sure you wanted to post this event here?”). They might use extremely conspicuous design elements to underscore the difference between shared and private parts of a service  – any shared folders might be bright purple, while private ones are green, say. Sure, perhaps you can already go under the hood to find or activate services like these. But I’m trying to stick up for the casual user, the guy who’s least likely to do that.

I lack some optimism here, since the very business model of many of these services, like Facebook, has to do with inducing users to overshare, or expanding the boundaries of what a previous generation’s mores thought it was appropriate to share.

Even so, I hope tech companies will hear our plea: high school was hard enough for the socially awkward nerds who form your loyal user base. Can’t you help us make adulthood a little less awkward, by putting in a few safeguards against accidental oversharing?

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