Last night (March 18) a Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan $115 million in a privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, for publishing a video showing the retired professional wrestler having sex with a friend’s wife.
The case was closely watched as a battle between freedom of speech and the right to privacy, but it also put a microscope onto the interoffice conversations between Gawker journalists who joked about the sex tape. Former Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read was not named in the case, but transcripts of his jokey conversations about the case were introduced into evidence.
“We tend to forget,” Read wrote for New York magazine, that online communication “has an essential difference compared with in-person conversations: permanence.”
And it’s not just for journalists: The Gawker case is an ominous reminder to workers everywhere to be careful of what you “say” at work, especially if it’s in electronic form. As many Wall Street scofflaws have discovered, everything you type is on the record.
Many people are now more cautious of what they say over email, but chat software tools like Slack are becoming more popular for their immediacy and ease of use. As Read notes, there’s nothing casual about your off-the-cuff jokes being scrutinized by a team of lawyers.
“‘Jokes I made to co-workers in 2012’ is not a category I store prominently in my memory palace, though I love those co-workers and assure you that most of my jokes were much better,” Read wrote. ”This is a scary realization: Hulk Hogan’s lawyers have a better sense of many conversations I had in 2012 than I do.”
The public airing of Gawker’s interoffice communications is a reminder that in the digital world, privacy is only an illusion. Like most electronic communications, Slack’s messages are stored indefinitely and are retrievable at any time. In exchange for the ease of immediacy and not having to navigate the more complicated and difficult aspects of real human interaction, we are signing off on more documentation of our online lives. And while we can carefully curate our images on Instagram and Facebook, we often don’t give communications on messaging platforms like Slack the same care.
Software is increasingly designed to translate our emotions—and encapsulate them into 140 characters, emojis and the appropriate font style—but even the best digital translation doesn’t account for the nuance that exists in a face-to-face encounter. Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and author of Reclaiming the Conversation, argues that all of our tweets, texts and Snapchats have replaced our ability to engage in face-to-face conversation and reduces our ability to feel empathy.
While Gawker founder Nick Denton defends the company’s approach to radical transparency, not everyone has the stomach for it. Most of us are wired to crave some degree of privacy. Some messaging platforms like Snapchat and Telegram are designed with that in mind, but perhaps an easier solution is to embrace the only place where we have any real privacy anymore: in a face-to-face conversation.
Correction:* An earlier version of this post said the ruling against Gawker was made on March 19 instead of March 18.