Cobb’s First Law of Digital Comms

by Stephen Cobb on December 29, 2008

Cobb’s first law of digital communications states:  You should never say anything in a digital communication that you wouldn’t want your mother to read.

Why? Because there is a chance that at some point in the future your mother might read it. The probability varies, but it is there, whether your mother uses a computer or not; just ask the scores of embarrassed CEOs and public officials who have seen some of their nastiest emails reprinted in newspapers.

In the context of this law, “digital communications” means email, instant messaging, SMS, Twitter, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, social network content, and more. The term “say anything” means write or post and includes images as well as words. What constitutes digital communications will change but the law will remain the same.

I came up with the basic premise for this law before blogs were invented, before the web as invented, even before Internet email started to take off and millions of people began sending messages under the mistaken assumption that only the intended recipients could read them. However, it was email that really brought the ‘message’ home, so to speak.

Leaving aside the wrongly addressed and incorrectly cc’d emails, the fact is that email is like a postcard, not a letter, it can be read by any machine it passes through (with the possible exception of some specially encrypted email, although there are people who can read that too–and some of them can be hired by the lawyers that your ex-spouse or ex-employer hired).

I started using digital messaging in the early 1980s on services like The Source and CompuServe. Although these were ‘closed’ networks with paid admission, it was clear even then that the contents of digital communications could easily be exposed by human errors, technical errors, court orders, and business decisions, to name a few. It was also clear that digital messages could linger a long time after they were sent, read, and supposedly deleted.

Like many ‘early adopters’ I learned the hard way that it was better to moderate the wording of one’s messages, or simply leave some things unsaid, than to face the embarrassment of rash words getting into the wrong hands. I don’t think I ever went so far as to call a client a jerk in a message that ended up in the client’s hands, but I did discover, to my chagrin, that there is no ‘unsend’ button in email applications and an email retraction never arrives before an emailed statement.

I happen to think there are some very positive ethical and philosophical implications to the reality I have tried to encapsulate in this first law of digital comms. I will try to lay out my thoughts on this in more depth in a future post. But here’s the short version: the transparency and persistence of digital comms tend to reduce the fudge factor in human existence, forcing us to be true to ourselves in all aspects of our lives. For all the talk about the ways in which things digital can be faked, the underlying thrust of our world becoming more digital is that we are faced with a fuller, and truer, picture of ourselves, across multiple dimensions. We are more likely, over time, to engage in dialog than to stay silent, to be ourselves in all things, to both give and seek acceptance, to accept diversity of thought and lifestyle rather than to censure and straightjacket.

Of course, this will all take time, so in the meantime I humbly suggest that we all keep the first law of digital comms in mind. Big brother is one thing, mother is another.

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