Our advice about online sharing generally has two sides:

  • If you share something online (at all), assume that it could be exposed to a much larger audience than you originally intend.
  • If someone else shares something with you that you want to reshare, ask them first.

(In other words, try to respect people’s intentions, but also account for the fact that your own might not be respected.)

On the second point, the central case is when you take something that starts out in a form that we think of as private (email, IMs) or audience-limited (email to multiple people, posts to “Friends”), and you take it up a notch on the private-ish side of the private/public “line” (resending a single-audience email to multiple other people) or taking it across that line (reposting something and making the new setting “Public”/tweeting it). Where by “public” we basically mean, you could find it using Google if you knew what you were looking for.

But as with “private”, the concept “public” isn’t simple to define either; they’re two poles of a continuum. On the “private” side, you have things no one but you would likely ever see (without highly specialized hacking skills) through information you share with one or two other people to posts that only your social-media contacts can see. On the public side, it can run from the technically-findable to the super-viral, or publication in The Newspaper/Blog Site of Record.

In an example a couple years ago, a famous blogger recommended that his readers check out (technically public) posts by some small-time bloggers who were on the other side of a current controversy about cultural power dynamics, but who he thought represented their side well. However, this exposed those lesser-known bloggers to a large influx of oppositional comments (that they felt played into that power dynamic). In addition, some weren’t in a position to spend energy fielding such comments. So, at least some of them did not appreciate the sudden exposure of their posts to a much broader (and more hostile) audience, and thought the famous blogger should have asked them first.

Whether one agrees with that point of view or not, it raises an important point: Even if it seems like you’re not taking information from the “private” category to the “public” category (i.e., if you’re forwarding an email to a few people — still a basically private channnel — or on the other side, if you’re posting a link to an already-public blog post), you can’t assume you know what the original author would want. There can always be factors you haven’t thought of. So, any time you’re doing something that causes the audience for something shared online to be expanded significantly beyond what the original sharer intended (especially if it’s a different type of audience), it may be safest to ask for permission first.