I sometimes think that the most useful preparation for my career in social media came not from my academic research into online politics, but rather, my practical experience with electoral politics. Working on the political staff of a senior elected official (the Premier of Ontario), I was drilled in the risks of press scrutiny and Freedom of Information Request. Make a critical remark in a public place and a reporter might overhear and quote you; offer a candid assessment of a sticky situation in writing rather than face-to-face, and it might be subject to later disclosure.

As a result, I developed an acute awareness that everything I said or wrote was in some sense on the record. This turns out to be excellent training for life online, where everything you say or write is on the record and easy to Google. Paranoia becomes a survival skill: people may not actually be out to get you, but assuming that they are offers an excellent check on your potential indiscretions. If you’ve worked in politics – or in any other highly visible field that emphasizes the risks of overdisclosure — you may have that useful paranoia yourself.

You know you’ve got the instinct for online discretion if you:

  • Assume that your unkind, quasi-cryptic tweet will be read (and decrypted) by the person you’re bitching about
  • Draft that angry email as if it were going to be forwarded to everyone in your organization
  • Share that amusing (and compromising) photo on Facebook in the expectation your mom will see it to
  • Ask your question of the online doctor about that weird spot down there, expecting that some pharmaceutical company will figure out you’re the one who asked it
  • Write every email, tweet and status update as if it were potentially going to be broadcast to the world…and pick up the phone if you can’t live with that possibility

That sense of potential exposure doesn’t keep me from enjoying my life online. On the contrary, it’s precisely because I live as if every written communication were potentially public that I feel comfortable blogging and tweeting about things that others might only commit to a notionally private email. Even I have my limits, but they limit what I share one-on-one as much as they limit what I share one-to-many.

Sadly, not everyone seems to experience political life as the ultimate schooling in social media discretion. For those who need a little extra help in how to be discreet online, my blog post today tackles the lessons from the current king of online indiscretion, Anthony Weiner. You can read The 3 Ps of Online Indulgence at Harvard Business Review.