I’ve had this blog in the background for some time, because I couldn’t figure out what the right time was to post it. Originally, this post was going to be about online piracy and getting books for free from pirates and the real world consequences of those decisions to download a book and not pay for it. But today, it’s not about piracy, though I will eventually post that sometime in the future.

Today, I’m talking about comments. Yesterday, I watched two people essentially start a flame war. Multiple hurtful comments were made and I took the time to chime in, specifically because of this blog I’ve had building.

Basically, I drew on my experiences in the online world, telling about some of the harsher comments that an agent made about me on her blog and some of the comments made in response to my PBS and New York Times pieces. I drew on those illustrations and pointed out, however, that I chose to seek to be a public figure and in doing so, gave everyone the right to say “who does this bitch think she is.” I also pointed out that the group had the potential to be damaged by what was going on and that we all needed to consider our actions online.

I am reasonably certain one of the individuals involves is no longer speaking to me. This saddens me because I have lost someone who I considered a friend. But it is her choice and I have lost other friends in the past. She, like the others, will be missed but I will not loose sleep if she cannot see how her actions might be used as a lesson to better the group.

That being said, I fully accept that what I wrote is the cause of her choice.

But the bottom line is that I posted something online with real world consequences.

Back in 2007, I was getting ready to go to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. In preparation, there was a message board where candidates could meet up, ask questions about getting ready for the course and generally share their knowledge to help others prepare.

This is good right? Yeah. For the most part, it was incredibly helpful. I was able to find my way around Benning, get some good pointers on what to study and generally feel a little more prepared.

About three weeks into the course, most of us had stopped hanging out at the message board because we were too busy and the limited access to the internet that we had was used for college or quick emails to loved ones scattered around the globe.

But one of my illustrious classmates decided one day to post on the site about how class was too easy, that our whole company was a joke and he expected everything to be much harder than it was.

Well, guess who else read those message boards? The cadre, to include the company commander. So when he got up in front of the entire company and told us that because some of us had too much time on our hands, we were going collectively have to deal with the consequences.

The opportunity came up for me to talk to said classmate about what happened and his rationale was stunning. He said that the post should have no impact in real life on the rest of the company because it was posted online. The commander should not punish everyone because of an online comment. It wasn’t like he’d said it out loud, so he shouldn’t be charged with disrespect. It was meant to get attention and it worked.

Really? Online actions don’t have real world consequences?

I think every single one of us can look at a tweet we posted or a facebook message or text or an email and go, damn, I shouldn’t have said that. I’ve done it many times and I am absolutely certain that some of these actions are going to come back and I will be held to account for my actions. And when that time comes, I will accept full responsibility for what I’ve said and not said, done and not done. These are my choices.

And for the record, for those who think that one comment can be blown way out of proportion, I say read the Rolling Stone article on GEN McCrystal. A couple of off hand remarks changed the entire face of the war. This was not to that magnitude in any way shape or form, but to dismiss it as one off color remark ignores the power of what we say and write.

One of the things I am counseling all of my leaders on in my company is that they need to be aware of their entire appearance, online, on the weekends and in front of their soldiers. As a general rule for my lieutenants and my soldiers I say this: would you say what you are about to write to a person’s face? How would you feel if someone you admire and respected read what you are about to write? And how would you feel if someone said it to you, in a public forum?

Your actions matter. Your choices matter. And the decisions and comments you make every day online matter. In that, I am sorry I have lost a friend. But I considered the benefit of the group over the benefit or risk to the individual. That may not have been my place in the group. I am not one of the leaders but I saw an opportunity to use this to better the group as a whole. It sucks that it has had this impact but you know what? I knew it going in.

The only thing I ask is that you consider the real world consequences to your next key stroke. Because those consequences do exist and they are very, very real.