The Internet is written in permanent ink.
Most folks in the media industry have heard this saying countless times, from their J-school origins to their first human-interest beat. Whatever is broadcast or published on the Internet is forever, and—quite literally—archived by the Library of Congress.
It may seem like common logic, and it may be easy to sit here and write this as if it were passed down on stone tablets from some mountain on high, for all the world's population to understand and obey.
Unfortunately, this week has proved that this concept is still elusive, and athletes like Terrell Owens and Amar'e Stoudemire stand to suffer the consequences for their ignorance.
I just wonder, too, how many others share those athletes' unenviable predicaments, and how we might better educate folks to the fact that what they say, post and do matters and can come at a notable cost if not appropriately handled.
Let's start by addressing Owens.
Today, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Dan Gross reported that a woman shared a handful of nude photographs—allegedly of the former Eagles wideout—with the publication. The woman was also reportedly hawking her wares to the likes of TMZ, hoping to find a winning ticket in the highest bidder and sell off the digital captures that allegedly show Owens masturbating on Skype.
I know the T.O. jokes are easy here. He's an easy target. He only has himself to blame for that. His countless antics have shaped him into a punchline, and he has hardly curried favor with any number of NFL franchises and fanbases over his lengthy, tumultuous pro career.
But in taking the bait there, going for the easy laugh, we miss the larger point. Owens is a victim. A victim of his own ignorance? Arguably. A victim of a woman who purportedly resembles a Seattle-area escort, a woman whose parents must be oh-so-proud of how her jackpot opportunity required secretly capturing sensitive imagery in what was understood to be a one-on-one video conversation? Absolutely.
A victim, though. In the end, a victim.
And not the only person in this world to find his privacy on the wrong end of the public lens.
Consider the 13 percent of students who have attempted suicide after sexting—mostly as a result of their intimate imagery being shared beyond their intended audience—or the fact that students who sexted in 2011 were twice as likely to suffer from depression as a result than students who did not sext.
This is a significant social problem. It's not one we feel comfortable addressing, or find room to mention outside of jokes, but it is very real, very relevant and very victimizing.
Owens is just an example, but a notable one at that. The acts of sending, submitting, posting, texting and broadcasting have consequences. Often dire consequences. And while it may be easy to assume the moral high ground and blame the sender ("You should have known this would happen", "What did you think was going to happen?"), we miss out on the larger point by doing so.
We miss out on the larger, more disturbing truth that society still does not seem to understand that the Internet is not some Second Life simulation. It exists with the same lack of safety net as the real world, and has become increasingly more rooted in day-to-day life and social operation.
Hell, anymore, it's hard to tell where the real world ends and the Internet begins. Anymore, there really is no buffer, no separation between the two.
Something Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire now understands all too well.
The NBA just fined Stoudemire $50,000 for tweeting a homophobic slur to a follower via direct message, in a conversation the Knicks star assumed to exist outside of public view.
His assumption ultimately proved costly.
Of course, there is a separate conversation entirely to be had about that specific slur and pro athletes' pathetic propensity for using it (seriously, guys, it's 2012, can we stop with racial and homophobic slurs already?), but ultimately, Stoudemire placed himself in the same situation as Owens.
He assumed his communicatory exchange existed in a vacuum.
He was wrong.
Let's realize there is a great social malady here, and let these guys be lessons. The Internet is forever. A one-on-one conversation, much like in the real world, is never exactly that, and anything you commit to keystrokes and pixels can come back to haunt you.
It may not be a pleasant reality, but it is a reality. And one we need to learn to deal with, to realize before we continue down the same path of ignorance that ultimately dead-ends with all victims and no answers, with nothing positive gained.
Instead of making the easy joke here, let's actually look at this problem for once and figure out how we can solve it. Maybe that's a conversation for parents to bring up to their kids, maybe it's something we ingrain into school systems themselves, or maybe it's a public-service-announcement campaign in the wings with responsible individuals stepping forward and hammering home the eternal nature of the Internet.
What Should Be Done to Counter Digital Ignorance?
Let's stop tweeting epithets and profanities and putting ourselves in position to have to answer for them down the line, whether in a job interview or jail cell. Let's stop and think before we hit the "send" button and ask ourselves whether we really want to put that text, image or e-mail out there, where anyone can access it and distribute as they wish from there.
Let's stop making parents have to answer why. Why their teenage daughters and sons are depressed, removed or, worse, no longer with us. Why they could have been pushed to such extremes.
Let's tackle this culture of digital ignorance once and for all, and realize this is a conversation very much worth having before others are victimized, before we put ourselves in a position to be victimized.
Because until we do, until we realize this is a subject that extends well beyond a few athletes flashing their junk, we're doomed to continue committing all of our worst qualities, secrets and personal representations to the Library of Congress.
In permanent ink.