It’s the sort of headline that grabs attention but doesn’t exactly tell the whole story: “Tourist walks off pier while browsing Facebook.” The Guardian reported yesterday that a tourist in Melbourne took an unintentional swim in Port Phillip Bay because she was engrossed in browsing the social media site on her phone.

“The woman was walking along St Kilda pier,” reports the Australian Associated Press, “… when she walked off the pier into the dark and chilly water about 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday. A quick-thinking witness raised the alarm. Police officers were able to point out the distressed woman floundering in the water to the water police, who rescued her about 20 meters from the pier. It is believed the woman did not know how to swim. She was taken to hospital for treatment.”

The news article further reports that the woman never let go of her phone throughout the “ordeal.” The picture painted is a bleak one. It depicts the sort of social-media obsessed, oblivious technology addict who ignores the rest of the world to the point of physical danger. This is not unlike news accounts of those people who are so dependent on GPS navigation that they ignore obvious flaws in the GPS map and drive off the road or into other hazards.

Much more realistically, this woman was distracted and she fell off the edge of something where there wasn’t a railing to stop her. That can happen to anyone. Whether you’re looking at your phone or at a pretty girl walking by, it’s possible to lose track of where you’re going and what’s under your feet. It wasn’t Facebook, specifically, that caused this woman’s problem. It was her inability to prioritize. It’s fine to use your phone to browse the Internet or check out social media – but the time to do that isn’t while standing at the edge of a bay, driving through downtown traffic, or sitting across the dinner table from a friend or significant other.

The urge to stay connected to everything, to share everything, to spew anything and everything in your heart and on your mind, is another failure to prioritize. Yes, your inner life does have a place on Facebook and other social media sites (if you are inclined to share it). But just because your thoughts are yours doesn’t mean they should necessarily be shared. A process of prioritization and filtering must take place when examining what you will and will not post. Failing to engage in this process can cause anything from public embarrassment to self-incrimination.

Keith Wagstaff, writing for NBC News this week, offered five reasons one ought to self-censor before posting on Facebook. Among these are refusing to perpetuate an argument and not wanting to offend others in the mixed company of one’s friends list. The most interesting of these, however, was the notion that some posters avoided making certain statements or admissions “they believed might be inconsistent with their self-representations.”

In other words, your Facebook page is a public face. It’s a representation of you to the rest of the world, whether open to the public or locked down to just your close family and friends. What you choose to reveal helps craft a public image, a “brand,” that is you. This brand may be sassy and candid, it may be sober and professional, it may be laid back and casual … or it may be disgusting and inappropriate. Only your self-censorship, your inner dialogue and debate, your process of filtering and prioritizing what you choose to share, can craft this message. If you choose not to censor yourself, you decide that you are who you are and the rest of the world can take you as you happen to be, understand that there will be those who judge you negatively for it – just as you, in turn, make judgments every day about the people on your friends list.

You shouldn’t know how much your friend makes at his job – especially if it was his wife, posting on Facebook, who told you and the world that value. You shouldn’t know if that couple is fighting as a result. You shouldn’t know if that fellow you met in an online hobby forum has a bad case of ringworm. You shouldn’t know that your neighbors across the street vandalized your property (because they posted pictures of the crime on their Facebook pages). You shouldn’t see boudoir shots of that guy you went to college with who’s now living as a woman.

Simply put, some revelations cross the lines of good taste and self-interest whether they are on Facebook or revealed at the dining room table after too much wine. Embarrassing personal information, once known, cannot be unlearned. Respect and trust lost cannot easily be regained. When you fail to filter, when you do not prioritize, your social-media audience will react accordingly. That audience does not just include your family or your friends, in most cases. It also includes your coworkers, your peers and various individuals from your past. Make a mistake in this virtual public square and it will resonate through all the spheres of your life online.

With so much riding on what you do and do not post to Facebook, we can perhaps forgive that tourist in Melbourne for falling off a pier while reading it. Her tumble into the drink provides us with an excellent metaphor, what our condescending president has called a “teachable moment.” When you fail to prioritize the tasks before you, your physical well-being can be endangered. When you fail to prioritize and filter your online revelations, your psychological and even financial well-being can be adversely affected.

If you have an online footprint – and most of us do – there is no difference, no division, between the online and offline worlds. You can and will endanger one by neglecting the other. This neglect can be the failure to apply proper judgment, but, as in the case of taking a long walk off a short pier, it can be as simple as not bothering to look carefully at what you’re doing.

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