Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

College of Charleston senior Michele Burton tweets Friday during a class change, as others pass by engaged in similar activities.

Gone are the days of first-class mail and conference calls on land lines. Even email is passe.

The tools of communication have changed. Use of social media has exploded, and the new services have influenced the way we interact with one another.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, LiveCast, blogs, gaming sites, online comment forums and many other interactive electronic platforms -- they are fast and easy ways to fire off electronic messages, to forgo formalities, to avoid proofreading. And it's common to reach a multitude with a few key strokes.

With speed and breadth, however, comes risk. As people rely more and more on social media, privacy diminishes and the opportunity to offend increases.

When comedian Gilbert Gottfried joked on Twitter about the Japanese tsunami in March, he was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck.

"Japan called me," he tweeted. "They said 'maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they're all sinking.' "

The tweets were deleted, even as Gottfried refused to apologize. "I was born without a censor button," he remarked.

When a man, wanted by Oregon authorities since 2009 for failing to pay child support, "checked in" at an Arizona restaurant via Facebook earlier this month, it prompted a tip that led to his arrest.

And when College of Charleston student body president Ross Kressel, an active Twitter user, broadcast offensive comments last week, it led to an impeachment hearing and a no-confidence vote.

"I've never been more embarrassed in my life," he said.

Tweets and posts are prompting a new kind of scrutiny. The words that are so easily delivered to the virtual cloud sometimes are quickly forgotten; sometimes, though, they cause regret or worse, said Heather Woolwine, media relations director at the Medical University of South Carolina and an avid Facebook user.

Getting in trouble

Woolwine said social media can provide easy ways to solicit feedback, receive words of encouragement or revel in a sense of solidarity with others.

But she's also noted a lot of passive-aggressive behavior online, and on one occasion a couple of years ago, one of her posts triggered a kerfuffle she's still trying to smooth out.

"A friend and I were having a disagreement and I was bereft, upset, I didn't know how to move things forward, how to get us back on track," Woolwine said. So she posted a generic message on Facebook mentioning the disagreement (without naming names) and asking her myriad "friends" for advice.

"Inevitably, my friend saw it and started to post things in the comment section, taking the argument public, which was not my intent."

Perhaps her friend interpreted Woolwine's initial post as a snarky attempt to expose their conflict, and simply fired back with her own posts, Woolwine speculated.

When she saw the comments, Woolwine removed the entire exchange and tried to repair the damage.

"The intention was good, but the outcome was bad," she reflected. "I think that as people move forward in using social media there are still things that are best handled either with a phone call or face-to-face communications. I should have said, 'Let's get together and talk about this.' Probably what was happening on both ends was we weren't interpreting each other correctly."

Social media might be a convenient way to communicate, but it cannot convey critical non-verbal queues that help us appreciate the subtleties of normal conversation, she said.

"If you have to handle disagreements online, maybe you should do it with Skype," Woolwine said. Skype includes video.

Michele Burton, a senior at the College of Charleston said she uses Twitter constantly, sometimes to share important information, sometimes to vent.

"It's kind of outrageous when you think about it, but I think a lot of people use it to say things they normally wouldn't say," Burton said.

Keeping track

When content "goes viral," or is seized upon by the mainstream media, it can make stars or destroy reputations.

Pop singer Justin Bieber's carefully orchestrated career started with a YouTube video. The Gregory Brothers' original songs, inspired by quirky videos they find online, are sold via iTunes and profits are shared with the people who appear in the videos.

When former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, of New York's 9th congressional district, posted a link to a sexually suggestive photograph of himself using his public Twitter account, the "sexting" scandal led to his resignation in June.

Even private accounts, such as the one Kressel used to tweet his disparaging messages about fellow College of Charleston students, aren't always private. All it takes is one person to forward the content to others or otherwise publicize it -- an easy act in this age of copy and paste.

Some social media companies, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, track and often log activity. Users who remove posts or delete tweets might assume their messages are no longer retrievable, but this is not the case. And when third-party services are used, such as HootSuite, a "dashboard" that facilitates simultaneous access to multiple social media platforms, posts can be logged in multiple places in the online universe.

In April last year, Twitter donated all public messages it's transmitted since its inception in 2006 to the Library of Congress, providing interesting fodder for future generations.

Facebook maintains all user information, even after subscribers shut down their pages.

And Google monitors and captures user behavior (including searches and email activity) to "enhance" its services by posting targeted advertisements and other conveniences.

Though cyberspace is a virtual domain, its inhabitants leave clear tracks in the sand, tracks that many others can follow. And therein lies the peril.

"There are no secrets," said Doug Ferguson, a professor of communication who teaches a course on social media at the College of Charleston. "As long as you tell one other person, it's not a secret anymore."

Too often, social media users have what amounts to a locker room conversation online, except everything they say is recorded, Ferguson said.

Face-to-face interaction might be ephemeral, but its likely to be respectful, he said. "But on Twitter it's permanent, it doesn't go away."

And a lot of the content one finds online is posted anonymously, which raises a set of ethical and legal questions.

Legal ramifications

The federal government "made it clear some years ago that anonymous speech is tolerated in a democracy," said Jay Bender, a professor of journalism and law at the University of South Carolina.

The problem is it often muddies the truth, allows for deniability and sullies the reputation of legitimate websites that choose to facilitate such forums.

"Congress has enacted legislation that says if you are an operator of an interactive website and allow comments, you have no liability for what's posted or what's taken down," Bender said. What you cannot do is change the content in any way.

That said, there is no constitutional protection for private abridgement of speech, he added.

"If I work for an employer and post something on my website that the employer finds offensive I can certainly be fired, unless the employer is the government," Bender said. "The government can't restrict free speech unless it's disruptive of the mission of the office." The word "disruptive," however, is ill-defined, he said.

The legal and ethical questions raised by social media -- concerning privacy, free speech, libel and other constitutional issues -- are not likely to be resolved unequivocally any time soon. For now, Bender said, the law leans in the direction of a relatively uninhibited virtual media domain.

"What we have in our society is the notion that more speech is good, and certainly when it comes to the question of government limiting speech, our bias is in favor of more speech rather than (less)," he said, even if that speech is anonymous and therefore of questionable value.

But anonymity is part of the Internet culture, Ferguson said.

"It's expected that people don't have to be seen and don't have to identify themselves," he said. Long before social media, people would scrawl things on the walls. "Graffiti is anonymous speech."

Everybody's doing it

Michele Burton said she's managed to avoid problems.

"I'm very cautious about the Internet," Burton said. I'm paranoid that even if I delete (a post) there are smarter people out there than me who can definitely go back and find it. It's going to get back to you some way or another."

So Burton said she uses social media to spread the word about sorority fundraisers or other activities, to contact friends and to share spontaneous thoughts, like "This class is really boring" or "This teacher is nuts" -- nothing that would get her in serious trouble should the wrong people turn up her tweet.

Kressel got in trouble because tweets delivered through his private Twitter account were discovered and shared with others. In a statement provided to the College of Charleston's George Street Observer, he apologized, then added, "I view the content of these tweets as a private matter."

But online, nothing really is private, Ferguson said. The social media experience is just that -- social.

"Social media doesn't work unless everybody's doing it and enjoying it," he said. "It was never intended to be private. It's about sharing."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.

Karen Aytes, 53, was an early adopter of Facebook and uses it to keep in touch with her son-in-law, who is deployed in Afghanistan.

"At first I thought, this is crazy, but soon I had more friends than my kids," Aytes said. "I saw it as a way of finding people I hadn't seen in a long time. Since then I've come to notice that, in many ways, it makes the world a smaller place."

She's occasionally regretted posting a comment. "If you think before you type, think before you put pictures up, then I think it's an awesome way to communicate. It can be very positive."

But she said it's easy to blur the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.