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Posted at 2:59 PM ET, 02/16/2011

Natalie Munroe and Nir Rosen: What happens online...

By Alexandra Petri

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If you don't have anything nice to say, post it online!

The instructions have changed over the years.

Caveman mothers would admonish: "Don't play with That Which Is Red And Cooks Food! Don't paint overly informative pictures about our family life on someone else's cave wall!" Medieval mothers gently urged: "Don't emblazon things on your crest while drunk! You might regret them later!" In the 1910s, Ma whispered not to make salacious phonograph recordings, lest they be discovered among your belongings by your heirs and no family member dared ever mention you by name again.

Now it's: Don't post incriminating things about yourself on the Internet. Don't blog. If you are at all a public person, don't post photos online where you are dressed as a sexy Hillary Clinton. Or, heck, a regular Hillary Clinton. Don't tweet. Don't say anything you might regret ever, because eventually you will have to get a job, and then where will you be?

Increasingly, we live our real lives in the virtual world. Online relationships aren't just for World of Warcrafters anymore, although we tend to interact with fewer level 9 fire trolls (I have never played this game). We announce our engagements, post photos, keep records of our lives. We even send classy wedding invitations in "paperless envelopes," pretending that we think we're saving paper instead of that we're just too lazy to send real invites.

And so we come to the case of Natalie Munroe, a Pennsylvania teacher who posted unflattering remarks about her students -- "I hear the trash company is hiring" -- on a personal blog and is now facing suspension.

I don't mean the kind of suspension that occurs after a mob of angry parents descend on your house, although that's likely. To me, as a student, the teachers' break-room conversation was always legendary. What did they really think, behind the smiling façade face that tried but failed to teach us how to use "façade" correctly in a sentence? Our parents always suspected that Ms. Munroe or Mr. Wilson thought we were "rat-like" and dressed like we'd been press-ganged into the Pussycat Dolls. And now we have proof!

That was why running into a teacher at the mall was always a harrowing experience. Suddenly we were both caught red-handed having real lives.

Now that happens online. As Millennials come of age, we have engaged in a complicated dance between freedom and privacy, our ability to express ourselves online and the need to answer for it in the real world.

So Natalie Munroe is fighting back. Good for her!

As a proud member of Generation I, I believe that I have the inalienable right to post inane things on the Internet. I assume that's in the Constitution, probably somewhere between the Second and Third amendments, in the emanations or the penumbras.

On her blog, there was at least the semblance of anonymity. Munroe did not post her full name -- until you got to the profile page. This was a blog for friends, a sort of diary with benefits. Before, when you dashed home and wrote, "I have had a terrible day and hate everything, and all my students are wildly incompetent," you wouldn't get six or seven comments from people expressing concern for your well-being and giving you a virtual cookie. It's a nice, human touch. But the flip side of the Internet's allowing us to reach all kinds of people around the world is that, well, it allows us to reach all kinds of people around the world. A hilarious insight can traverse the globe in minutes -- a reprehensible remark (such as the ones made on Twitter by NYU fellow Nir Rosen) -- in seconds.

Online, no one is paying attention until everyone is paying attention. And then you get suspended from your job as a teacher in Pennsylvania or have to resign as a fellow at NYU.

But I think there's a qualitative difference between the two sets of comments that epitomizes where the line should be. Munroe was complaining to friends about her day job, simply translating online the kind of banter that usually occurs behind the door of the teachers' lounge. Yes, the "disobedient, disrespectful oafs. Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS" might be upset. But these were not views Munroe expressed where she expected them to be heard, and the blog was discovered a year after its creation. On the other hand, Rosen's hateful comments about Lara Logan, making light of her situation on his public Twitter feed? Those were something else, an angry screed delivered in a forum designed for maximum noise.

Online privacy is one of our era's most cherished oxymorons, like jumbo shrimp or bad publicity. But there are compelling arguments for perpetuating this notion. True, we have to be careful about what we post online. Stumbling upon an online journal is not the equivalent of tripping over a real, hard-copy diary. Online records are both more permanent and more performative. But there is a distinction between a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, a LiveJournal and a Tumblr. And regardless, we are allowed to have lives that are separate from our work, to complain in the teachers' lounge, to joke that Duane has a bright career in front of him -- in garbage collection. And these days, much of those lives are online.

This is not a free pass to write anything. If you don't have anything nice to say, posting it online might not be optimal. But teachers are people too.

That's why you don't friend them on Facebook.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 16, 2011; 2:59 PM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  Facebook, millennials, online comments, oops, technology, twitter  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: What happened to Lara Logan was unacceptable
Next: How Obama's meeting with Facebook's Zuckerberg should go

Comments

Munroe did not post her name, the school's name, or ANY of the students' names. I suspect she's got grounds for a lawsuit on 1st Amendment grounds. (And, let's face it, when it comes to describing today's kids as disobedient, disrespectful, and entitled, she's right on the money.)

Posted by: MockingbirdGirl | February 16, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Regardless of the issues about public employees posting derogatory comments about unnamed students -- it was her blog and everyone had access to her comments -- any teacher who denigrates her students and blames them for her lack of success doesn't belong in a classroom. Period.

It's her job to learn how to teach whatever kids she gets; it's her job to be a professional and learn that there are many ways to motivate unmotivated students. She is a poor excuse for a public employee in a difficult job.

Posted by: goheen1 | February 16, 2011 6:43 PM | Report abuse

The bottom line is that what is online is there for the world to see. You can take Natalie's side if you want, but until you blog about your co-workers, clients or your boss being less than ideal (and with truth, not humor) I imagine that it is just the vague principle that you agree with and not the actual practice.

If people continue to broadcast their every thought there will be consequences.

Since the invention of the printing press there has never been a lack of outlets for people to express their opinion to a great number of followers. Revolutions were started with pamphlets and town message boards in the 1770's and Facebook in 2011.

The difference is the self-destructive misuse of the tools. Why would anyone WANT to make a diary public? Unedited?? Is an off-the-cuff remark really worth sending to one thousand people? Why would any of us trust our legacy or careers to Twitter? Vanity and carelessness are the only answers.

Posted by: thomfo | February 16, 2011 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Listen to the Feb 16th AC360 program.

When Cooper pushes him to admit he knew the attack was sexual, mentioning Rosen's comparing it to the attack on him (Cooper), Rosen says in effect:

"Oh yes, sexual is so much worse, especially for a man."

I agree with Rosen: Rosen really is a jerk.

Posted by: tallfl | February 17, 2011 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Want to read a real teacher's blog? Then enjoy this one, A Dixie Diary, at www.adixiediary.com

Actually published a few days ago, this unique teacher's journal shows a different look at what happens in the schoolhouse ... by a rookie teacher who loves his work and his students, but he expresses his thoughts and observations in a hugely different way than Mrs. Munroe. Sure, there are some intense moments, even some good cussing, too … but mostly it's world-class hilarious, heartwarming ... like reading a good book. It’s the teacher’s blog we’ve been waiting for. It's simply mesmerizing.

Posted by: tadjackson | February 23, 2011 6:49 AM | Report abuse

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