March 30, 2012

Writing for Social, Defending for Court

Earlier this month, I had an interesting experience, being asked to participate in a deposition, taking questions from a legal team as part of an ongoing case. While I’ll skip the details out of deference for confidentiality, there were aspects of the morning that serve as a reminder for those of us who participate online that often, content we post is permanent, and it can be discovered and used for means far beyond those we originally intended.

For those unfamiliar with the process of a deposition, it’s essentially when an individual is called as part of a fact-finding mission, to bring information deemed relevant to a lawsuit or other legal matter, outside of court. The individual being deposed, in this case, me, fields questions from an attorney, and those answers are recorded as on the record, as they would be in court. The questions can draw from one’s memory and experience, or can come in response to exhibits entered into evidence.

In my example, beyond questions about my knowledge and experience, I was presented with four exhibits entered into evidence. As is procedure, I was first asked if I recognized the exhibits, and after acknowledging I was familiar, I fielded questions about their content. The source of these exhibits was intriguing, consisting of:

1. The main documents related to the case, as one would expect.
2. My own LinkedIn resume.
3. A Google+ post I made in 2011.
4. Multiple Quora posts I made in 2010 on a single topic.

Seeing my own words come back to me, in a new and unexpected setting, was initially unnerving. No doubt when I set up my LinkedIn resume and ongoing work history, I didn’t anticipate it forming the background for how I would be qualified in the legal process. When I posted to Google+ last year, I didn’t anticipate mining a few of the paragraphs to confirm what I had stated was accurate. I certainly didn’t expect posts I made on Quora two years ago would later be entered into the legal record.

As I revisited my own words, I was comforted to see they were not only accurate, but mirrored my testimony and helped answer the questions. I was intrigued to see the mix of content coming from LinkedIn, Google+ and Quora as forming the exhibit summary for the case, and glad that my honest and direct approach to social networking meant I didn’t have to explain away any hyperbole, sarcasm or misdirection.

The morning’s events wrapped and I was left thinking about the mountain of content I’ve brought to various social networking sites in the last several years - from the blog to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Quora and so many other places, as well as the activity many of my peers are consistently producing. We’ve all heard stories about how posting pictures from a party or slandering your boss online can have real world impact. But as social networking content becomes the grounds for evidence in law, it brings up new considerations for seriousness on the web.

As one friend of mine, who has also gone through the deposition process before, noted when I replayed the events, “People who work for a large company, yet insist on saying crazy things, probably haven't been through a deposition already.” I would have to agree. That doesn’t mean lose your sense of humor and personality, but it does mean that if you do participate online, consider where the words could eventually fall. You might be surprised.