It is not difficult to err on the side of caution, and this is probably a useful rule, considering people typically regret saying too much more than saying too little. Yet this can be frustrating insofar as it seems like a restriction on freedom – indeed, not posting anything that anyone could find offensive is easier as rhetoric than practice, and little societal progress would have been made without people willing to offend. Are there, then, lines to be drawn and rules to which we can adhere, or should we just “use our gut”?
Take, for example, what is commonly referred to as “dark speech,” which can range from depressed posts to posts of constant complaint to general “Debbie Downer” posts. There is a distinction to be drawn between those people who are: a) seriously depressed and need professional attention, b) those people who are reaching out to friends because they need support at that moment in their life, and c) people who are narcissistically fishing for attention from the rest of their community. These distinctions, of course, are no different from those which can be made in real life, and, for the most part, we can probably tell at a glance into which of these categories any given dark speech falls, particularly if we view it in relation to the broader context of the person’s digital footprint. Differentiating which of such categories potentially questionable material such as dark speech falls into is the first step in considering what ought and ought not to go online. Note, too, the emphasis on intent. To use a different example, public displays of affection (PDA): are you posting that picture with your boyfriend because you are proud of your long-term relationship or because you want to brag to your friends?
Intent is important, but is not the end of the story. While this is a good guide for judging your behavior, it ought also to be remembered that any intent on the list may be interpreted to have been your intent by a third party. So, even if you wanted to show your pride at a long-term commitment, someone else might (and probably would) think you were bragging. This does not necessarily mean you should censor all behavior, but it does mean that a large percentage of behavior would benefit from conducting cost-benefit analysis with a trained mentor as to what the value of your intent in posting is, versus the potential damage it could do when misinterpreted.
It can be hard to draw lines in the sand when it comes to posting content online; bold statements can be an important part to crafting an overall identity, both on and offline. But being bold is not the same thing as being rash, or crass. Working with a mentor to understand the difference and finding a way to be yourself in a way which does that compromise that self or cause unjust injury to others is a huge step on the path to cultivating a world view which allows both progressive thought and respectful confrontation.