02/06/2009 04:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Phelps on Camera, or All is Public, Nothing is Fair

Sometimes a big news story can open up fresh public discussion on perennially intractable issues, and the Michael Phelps pot-smoking debacle has done just that. The photograph of him has stirred up, once again, discussion of the need for de-criminalization of marijuana, the elevation of athletes as role models (and the expectations real or phony that ensue), and whether or not advertisers are as shocked as they pretend to be when one of their pitchmen or women screws up. And though I reckon that in my lifetime neither high school debate clubs nor sparring pundits will ever find any resolution or even common ground, it is always healthy for the public discourse to revive these issues, ones that even kids can engage in with fluency.

To me, however, the take-away of the Phelps story is the chilling realization that someone took his picture, peddled it, presumably sold it and is watching from some lair as Phelps' world unravels. Phelps' lapse was that he became sufficiently inhibition-free to forget that nowadays, none of us are alone. And if you are famous, or paid in gold to endorse cereal for children so they can be just like you, the stakes are too high to do your misbehaving anywhere but in total isolation.

The person who took the snapshot of Phelps inhaling made a decision about the swimmer's privacy that by now many of us have experienced. I know quite a few people who could act tamer, or at least their age, at parties, but I am not sure they deserve public ridicule in the name of fun when those photos are posted on Facebook for the entire planet to see. I feel sorry for the guy in the embarrassing hat, or the woman with her tongue sticking out provocatively, and they seem occasionally to show up in my newsfeed. These things not only may make you red-faced today, but they can reverberate six years from now. With privacy a defunct concept, the onus might be on all of us to behave like missionaries out in public, with caution and temperance. How unfortunate that spontaneity is now the enemy, when there are cameras around. That picture of you boogieing with abandon might open up a world of regret for you once it lands on Facebook. Once your 258 friends start a stream of comments, and a prospective employer checks in, you are an official, and perhaps unemployable, public embarrassment. But should we be reining ourselves in? Is it our fault for acting like a fool, or do we blame the person who breached by taking the picture and disseminating it? Both, and the truth is sad, one that Michael Phelps learned the hard way: Trust no one.

All of us, adults and children, famous or not, even if it doesn't involve drugs, alcohol, nude sunbathing or an airport tantrum, exist ever more in the public domain. I dropped something under my car the other day, in a large, snowy parking lot. The sight of me slipping on the ice, fishing under my car, dropping the groceries which then scattered, laughing, crying and falling on the ice again would have been a hilarious bit of impromptu cinema. Thankfully no one was around with a cellphone. Or maybe they were, and I'm currently a laughing stock on YouTube.

Obviously, a camera in every pocket has worked largely in all of society's favor. They document car accidents. They capture crimes, and in so doing, help provide crucial investigatory and courtroom evidence. They are present at news events such as the recent capture of the terrorist responsible for the Mumbai massacre, aiding news organizations and future documentarians. But they also are serving to make us watch what we're doing, and consider the repercussions. For me, this is a sobering realization.

We are complicit in making Michael Phelp's torso, not the Presidential candidates, our national emblem for a brief moment last summer. He swam fast and we love that. He gets, or got, millions of dollars for lending his name to Corn Flakes or Speedo bathing suits, which many of us probably would buy with or without his likeness on the packaging, and with or without the bong hit. His transgression harmed no one but himself. His real blind spot was in not knowing the company he was keeping. Someone chose to take the picture at a private party, and distribute it. It is the height of sleaze, but not Phelps' fault. His misfortune, as is so often the case, has revealed some realities about life in 2009.

The dictum now being drilled into our children about technology now seems obvious, as well as a matter of safety and etiquette: Don't write anything electronically that you wouldn't mind seeing splashed on the cover of the New York Times. Just ask Rep. Mark Foley if he has any regrets about some instant messages he sent, obviously not for worldwide distribution. Judging from the number of f-bombs on any teenager's Facebook page, I am not sure that message is sinking in. But perhaps the ones imparted by Michael Phelp's big, costly, so very public exposure, will be more effective. Stay off the pot is the obvious one, even though marijuana laws are due for some serious updating. The other one: that there is no taking back a photograph. If you are successful, in whatever realm, someone may be waiting for an opportunity to watch you fumble. If you are not famous, one false dance step could make you infamous on Facebook by sundown. Every move you make is potentially part of the public record. So act accordingly.