by Laura Brown
Originally Published Jan 10, 2014
I spent last weekend proofreading the final proofs of How to Write Anything before it goes to press (it’s coming out in April!). How to Write Anything features two chapters of advice about what I call “e-writing”—that is, e-mail, text messages, social media, etc. As I read through these chapters, I found myself wondering, “Is this advice really timely? Surely people understand by now that that e-mail isn’t private, that instant messages are cached, that nothing on the web ever really disappears? Doesn’t everybody know this already?” The front pages of yesterday’s and today’s New York Times gave me my answer: a resounding “no.”
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, New Jersey governor Chris Christie is caught up in a very public scandal precipitated by the release of e-mails and text messages from some of his associates. Apparently Christie’s (now former) deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly conspired with Port Authority official David Wildstein and others to close two lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge. Their motive was revenge on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not supporting Christie’s re-election campaign. The lane closures created hideous traffic snarls that delayed commuters for as long as four hours and turned Fort Lee into a parking lot.
The Times produced e-mails and text messages belonging to Kelly and Wildstein that describe the plot. An opening e-mail from Kelly suggests “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” A reply from Wildstein acknowledges, “Got it.” Text messages from Wildstein mock school children stuck for hours on school buses—“they are the children of Buono voters” (referring to Governor Christie’s opponent in the gubernatorial election). When New York City officials intervened and re-opened lanes, Wildstein emailed Kelly, “the New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”
It’s important to note that the investigation into this incident is just beginning, and there is no evidence that Governor Christie was involved. However, the popular Governor has a big mess on his hands, and there’s widespread discussion that Christie’s chances for a White House bid in 2016 are finished as a result of the incriminating e-mails and texts.
If this is making you wonder if all your own e-mails and text messages are completely appropriate, good! In How to Write Anything, I share a simple trick you can use to check the appropriateness of your e-writing. Before you send an e-mail or text message, ask yourself, “how would I feel if this message appeared on the front page of the New York Times?” If the answer is “not good,” revise that message! This is probably the most important lesson you must learn about e-mail, whether you e-mail at work, at school, or in your personal life, and it’s exactly the lesson that Governor Christie’s aides failed to observe.
While I’m sure none of my readers would involve themselves in a scheme like this, this incident gives us all an opportunity to reflect on our own e-writing habits. Is there anything in your e-mail that might reflect badly on you or your company? Would you be comfortable with your boss seeing your instant messages? What about a college recruiter seeing your Facebook page? How would you feel about having your text messages printed on the front page of the New York Times?
If any of these questions give you pause, it’s time to remind yourself that nothing on the Internet is private. Cyber-communication is not getting any safer–in fact, the opposite is the case. Lack of caution can cause serious embarrassment or worse, as the governor and his associates are learning.
For more tips about keeping yourself (and your kids) safe in the world of cyber-communication, pre-order your copy of How to Write Anything on Amazon today.