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Are you ready to go viral?

textingI’ve often wondered what it would be like to stumble upon the next big thing online. But, I’ve never actually wanted the subject to be me.

Have you ever stopped to think about a student recording your lecture and then sharing it on YouTube, Vine, Facebook, or all of them? What about forwarding your email that your student disagrees with or finds funny? My guess is that it’s “viral-ness” wouldn’t be because the content was necessarily flattering. Professors, teachers, graduate assistants, be careful. You, your lecture, your emails, they all leave you vulnerable to becoming the next Internet buzz.

How does it happen?

A recent article from Inside Higher Ed reported that a faculty member from the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse made a politically bent comment in an email to her student. Here’s what she wrote to an online student who asked about an assignment that required accessing census data during the government shutdown:

“Some of the data gathering assignment will be impossible to complete until the Republican/tea party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government…. Please do what you can on the assignment. Those parts you are unable to do because of the shutdown will have to wait until Congress decides we actually need a government. Please listen to the news and be prepared to turn in the assignment quickly once our nation re-opens.”
(Source: Inside Higher Ed, 10/10/2013)

Suddenly, a private email became Internet news. Now, I want to set aside the political angle of this discussion and talk about the less divisive issue at stake here which is teacher awareness of expectations of privacy. In my business writing class, we spend a good deal of time talking about (or maybe it’s just me scaring them about) the vulnerability of online communication. Emails can be forwarded. Videos can be posted. Photos can be tweeted. It’s a privacy nightmare. So, what rule should you live by? There is no privacy. You have none.

Can you protect yourself?

What you say in class, what you write in an email, what you post as comments. All of this content is fair game. Unless…

Does your institution have a privacy or copyright policy? The University of Maryland offers some great guidance and content for their instructors on copyright information and materials. Here’s another helpful example from the University of Virginia. I’m still digging for something at my institutions. But, even if you can’t find an institutional statement, why not prepare your own for your syllabus? Or, simply record your lectures and copyright your written content. It’s as easy as writing “This material and its content may not be reproduced or disseminated without the owner’s prior written consent.” Protect yourself and your content. Get informed. Do some research.

But, let’s be honest, can these statements alone really protect you from the initial firestorm resulting from “illegally” shared content? Of course not. Students can record, forward, share, or tweet whatever you say or write in class before you even have a chance to be shocked.

So, what’s the lesson?

Expectations of privacy? What expectations of privacy? Social media and the internet have changed everything, even your classroom. When you’re writing emails at work, even if you’re writing to students, you must be mindful that it’s still online written material. If you write something carelessly and it falls in the wrong hands, it can be deadly to a reputation. Keep in mind that your audience is now much larger than you ever anticipated. So, just watch what you say and think about the larger context.

Back to the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse example. We can debate for days about the validity of the student sharing the content or the professor writing what she wrote, but it doesn’t change what happened to her. There are many, many others like her. That means it can also happen to you. And there’s no real stopping it.

That’s what we should take away from this. Professors beware. You may be the next thing to go viral.

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