I just read a great article in the Aug. 14 issue of the Chicago Tribune (requires sign-up to see it), and it got me thinking. For all the hand-wringing over the harm inflicted on email by spam, phishing and state laws such as those recently passed by Michigan and Utah, could the real threat to email be our words themselves?
Well-publicized tales of politicians, media celebrities and business leaders whose email communications have come back to haunt them are leading many prominent individuals to conclude that email's risks outweigh its benefits.
President Bush, a former avid email user, gave it up completely when he took office. Concerned that any email correspondence would become public record, he told newspaper editors in a speech this spring that he gave it up to prevent the disclosure of "personal stuff," such as correspondence with his daughters.
But is going cold turkey really necessary? And if so, what lessons do these decisions hold for the rest of us?
Research suggests that, even when they know better, people reveal more on computer than they do on paper or in conversation. Potential personal disclosures or embarrassment aside, the fact that every message creates a legally actionable paper trail, has lawyers everywhere urging caution. The New York attorney who defended Martha Stewart at her criminal trial, which involved a disputed email, said, "They pop up in virtually every investigation. It's almost like a legal wiretap."
So, if our email messages, which feel like private communications, aren't really private, what about SMS text messaging and Internet instant messaging? And, can the RSS feeds to which we subscribe also be used against us someday?
I think the fundamental problem is that we see email as the proverbial hammer and thus every kind of communication challenge looks like a nail.
My hope is that, as we roll into the future, we will see different kinds of communications gravitating toward different mediums. Perhaps we'll receive timely alerts on our phones, personal correspondence over email, and newsletters and broadcast updates via RSS. And, maybe we'll even find a way to sign up for commercial communications with something other than email so we don't have to worry about spam or phishing.
The tough news for President Bush is that intense scrutiny and exceedingly high accountability for his digital words are probably just an inescapable a fact of life. Just as television forever changed the face of celebrity, and even impacted our national elections (with the advantage going to beauty, composure and charisma), the online world is changing the way we choose to communicate, and how such communications will live on beyond the moments in which they take place.