I spent part of yesterday afternoon watching a former co-worker explain a joke I’d once made in Campfire, the software we used for work chats. It wasn’t, necessarily, the strangest experience — except that it was occurring in a taped deposition that was being played in court, in the midst of a lawsuit that was being livestreamed on the internet to viewers across the world. My chat joke — and my co-worker John Cook’s noble attempt to explain it to a lawyer — are now a matter of public record.
Gawker Media, the company where I used to work, is being sued by the wrestler Terry Bollea (better known as Hulk Hogan) over a 2012 story in which Gawker published a short excerpt from a video showing Bollea having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of Bollea’s friend Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. (If it isn’t obvious, the trial is taking place in Florida.) I worked at Gawker in 2012, but wasn’t involved in creating the story, so I’m not named in the lawsuit, nor was I deposed as a witness. But I did make jokes that involved Hogan in one way or another in our internal chat at the time. And now the whole world knows how corny I am.
The joke, which was the subject of a rigorous back-and-forth between John and the opposing counsel, went something like this: Someone referred to the Hulk Hogan sex tape as “tender.” I wondered aloud if it also contained a leg drop (a famous pro-wrestling move) — a “tender leg drop.”
I can’t be much more specific than that, because I have no memory of making this joke. “Jokes I made to co-workers in 2012” is not a category I store prominently in my memory palace, though I love those co-workers and assure you that most of my jokes were much better. This is a scary realization: Hulk Hogan’s lawyers have a better sense of many conversations I had in 2012 than I do.
The rise of workplace chat software — Slack, HipChat, Campfire, and even Google Hangouts — has been a boon to many tech and media companies. Lowering the threshold of communication eliminates productivity-costing energy expenditures like “standing up and walking over to someone.” Problems can be dealt with more efficiently, questions can be answered more quickly, and gossip can flow much more freely than ever before.
Which might be fine, if all that gossip wasn’t being archived in a searchable database. We’ve gotten so used to talking with our co-workers over Slack that we tend to forget it has an essential difference compared with in-person conversations: permanence. The ephemerality of face-to-face communication is a feature and a bug. The usefulness of being able to search your conversations with your boss to figure out exactly what he’s asking for turns into a major liability when it also includes you bitching with co-workers about him in a private chat.
I got off lucky in this case because the only unfortunate fact revealed to the world is how annoying I am in workplace chat rooms, something already known to my former co-workers and slowly being learned by my new ones. But there’s a bible’s worth of casual (or joking) shit-talking I’ve done in Gawker’s chat archives, some of which would make me very uncomfortable (if not unemployable) if it got out — a wealth of gossip and prattle I should have just conducted in person.
Lawyers are well aware of this: If you email one, he or she will often respond with a request to get on the phone. If you work at a business that’s at regular risk of lawsuits, you will tend to hear from your lawyers fairly regularly that conversations about sensitive subjects should be had over the phone or, even better, in person. Writing stuff down, incriminating or not, increases the amount of material that can be subpoenaed, and opens up new avenues for your hypothetical opposition. Written correspondence has an unfortunate tendency to lose nuance and irony that can be easily communicated when recalling a conversation for a deposition, as John and I learned in the Hogan deposition process.
But even if you don’t work somewhere at risk of lawsuits (or, for that matter, subject to freedom-of-information laws), consider that your terrible jokes and idle gossip aren’t prey only for aggressive lawyers. Just ask former Sony Pictures president Amy Pascal. Slack’s security (to name the biggest example) is fairly good. But when you’re creating an enormous searchable database of your workplace conversations, “fairly good” may not be hugely reassuring. You may not even need to be the specific target: All of your Slack data is stored on Slack’s servers, as well as your employer’s. In the unlikely event of a major security breach, the internal chats of many different companies could spill out.
Of course, many media types have spent the last five or six years creating a public record of our gossip and shit-talk on Twitter alongside the private records we’re assembling in Slack or Campfire. The important difference is that my jokes on Twitter are funny. “Tender leg drop” was not. For the record.