If you've been online very long, you've probably heard the following advice: Don't post anything online that you wouldn't want to read on the front page of the New York Times. Well, I've been online since 1991, so you'd think I'd have internalized that bit of advice. But I got a surprise reminder today.
I didn't post anything awful, and it didn't appear in the Times. Here's what did happen: This morning I got an email from a colleague, congratulating me on a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. That would be a routine bit of correspondence except for one important point: I never wrote a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education! I did, however, submit a short posting a couple of months ago to Colloquy, the Chronicle's online forum for discussing issues related to higher ed. I hopped over to the Chronicle site, and, sure enough, there was my posting, edited a bit and presented as a letter to the editor (see http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i12/12b01701.htm if you're interested; it's a response to an article by a conservative librarian, accusing the library profession of liberal bias). A little more digging revealed the following statement on the Colloquy page: "All submissions may also be published as letters to the editor in print."
I don't mind my posting appearing as a letter to the editor, but I wish I'd paid more attention and noticed this statement beforehand. Then I would have taken a bit more time with the post, as I would anything I intended for publication.
The lesson? Read all fine print before posting online, and assume your words may crop up in unexpected places. And a note to the folks at the Chronicle: It would be nice if you'd label which letters are really Colloquy postings, so people would understand why they are less polished and formal than one would otherwise expect.