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Getting Found Out, Web 2.0 Style

In a world of Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, our little white lies can come back to haunt us. Will we get more honest, or shut off the feed?

The other night I was watching a clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the iconic teen movie of my generation. It's the scene where Ferris and Cameron are at the Cubs game and TV cameras pan Ferris catching a foul ball. Mr. Rooney, the obsessive high school principal who devotes his day to catching Ferris ditching, looks away from the TV just at that second. Ferris narrowly escapes.

It was then I realized just how dated this movie has become. A kid cutting school these days has a whole range of ways, beyond the chance pan of a TV camera, to get caught. Thanks to social media, there's an online trail of everything we do, with "friends" and "followers" as the audiences of the reality show starring each of us.

Imagine Ferris cutting class today. First, Mr. Rooney probably would have TiVo'd (TIVO) the game and had the chance to replay every hit caught by a fan. Ferris would have to resist the urge to change his Facebook status to "Ditching school today. Who's in?" He couldn't blog about his day afterwards. Nor could he post pictures on Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr. And the hardest for any Web 2.0 devotee: He couldn't Twitter about any of it—not even convincing that snooty maître d' he was the sausage king of Chicago. (Although he could Yelp about those valets who racked up the miles in Cameron's dad's Ferrari.)

You Can't Hide Anything

The comparison underscores one of the downsides of Web 2.0: getting busted. I'm not talking about the dramatic, life-changing exposés, where a man gets caught cheating on his wife or an applicant doesn't get an interview because of incriminating college-party photos. No, I'm referring to the impact on the seemingly little white lies woven so tightly into our social fabric we don't even think about them anymore—until we get found out, that is.

Everywhere I go I hear of people getting busted because of what they disclose online. Valleywag editor Owen Thomas got additional inklings of an imminent Facebook-Microsoft (MSFT) deal when Facebook head of PR Brandee Barker had friended Adam Sohn, Microsoft's head of global sales and marketing PR, through her social network. Days later, Microsoft announced its $240 million investment in the social network. "Yeah, that was stupid," Barker confesses with a blush.

Of course most of us aren't cyberstalked by Valleywag. More common is a story like Shea Sylvia, a travel and entertainment writer for b5Media. She went out drinking with a friend, and both Twittered about it. She'd forgotten that her boss followed both of them. "Needless to say, he was not impressed with my 'I'm sick' when I called in the next day," Sylvia writes in an e-mail. "Not only did he not buy my excuse, he made me come in and work longer-than-usual hours." Sylvia would never again drink-and-Twitter on a work night.

Or there's the story of one Web 2.0 mover and shaker, who asked to remain nameless. He is a notorious people pleaser, so when he's invited somewhere he doesn't want to go, he instinctively makes up an alibi, à la "I'd love to, but my mother-in-law is in town and we're having a tree-planting day in the park." You know the excuse: just sane enough it could be true, but wacky enough he couldn't be making it up. But, because he works in Silicon Valley's Web scene, where everyone is using every new social media tool, he now has to keep track of all these excuses and what days they were on, so he doesn't Twitter or blog about whatever he really did that day instead. And of course, he has to make sure no one he's hanging out with Twitters, blogs, or posts a Facebook photo. If he really wants to be convincing, he has to Twitter missives such as "Just planted a tree!" to keep the ruse alive. That's a lot of work for a little white lie.

Communicating with a Mass Audience

But besides being an annoyance, the snowballing prevalence of these busted moments actually underscores the disruptiveness of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the new social network aggregation tool FriendFeed.

These are distinctly different ways of communicating from everything we've seen to now, including e-mail, instant messaging, and even mobile messaging. Consider sending and receiving messages via Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry. It's still largely one-to-one communication, where you design a message with a specific person or group in mind. Ditto for IMs. But send a status update or a Tweet, and it's available to anyone you ever gave permission to see your information—and in some cases, anyone with a Web browser.

As this phenomenon spreads from early-adopter techies to mass audiences, it'll test some of the basic premises behind Web 2.0. Ning co-founder Marc Andreessen espouses the idea that people really want to hear from other people. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes people want tools that help them make sense of the world around them. Really? Maybe we've constructed social barriers in the offline world for a reason. Maybe we don't want to let everyone in.

Just as these new technologies get mainstream, there's likely to be a backlash. Remember the outcry when Facebook initiated the News Feed and Beacon tools, both aimed at disseminating information about what people are doing?

Making Sure Your Stories Jibe

The controversy reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George freaks out about his worlds colliding when his fiancée starts hanging out with his friends. In the Web 2.0 Age, worlds collide all the time, at hyperspeed. Done right, these tools help us keep in touch in an amazingly efficient way. I log into Facebook every morning and scan the list of birthdays and take five minutes to make Wall posts. Voilà. I'm a more considerate friend than I am offline. One 140-character Twitter note can tell my 3,000-plus followers I just wrote a new blog post. I called my parents last week; now that they're accustomed to "communicating" with me via Twitter, e-mail, and my blog, they were stunned to hear my voice. Yet because they knew the basics, we had a deeper, richer conversation. I even wrote my mother a blog post for Mother's Day, instead of sending a card. A former student found it and left a sweet saying my mom was one of the best teachers she'd had. Beats a sappy Hallmark card!

For me, the convenience trumps the fear of the bust. I've accepted it: My worlds have collided, and there's no going back. When I'm late on a column, I know better than to make up excuses that will only be contradicted by Twitter feeds. My parents and in-laws read my Twitter stream, so I don't write anything I wouldn't want them to see. Valleywag scours the Web for photos of me, so I make sure nothing I don't want to see on the gossip blog is posted. If I don't want to go to a party, I don't make up a lame excuse. I just say: "Sorry, I'm really tired and a night at home with TiVo sounds better." It's made me more honest, and probably given everyone in my life a truer idea of who I really am.

Of course, it hasn't come without my own embarrassing "Busted!" moments. Fortunately, a column is still one-to-many communication, and I don't have to tell you about them. You'll have to follow me on Twitter for that.

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