The internet is still in its infancy, and our use of it is still developing. It’s an exciting time to be alive; I’d argue that no single technological advance since the printing press has transformed our culture, normative behaviours and society as profoundly. New possibilities and new ways of interacting are opening up every day.
However, this cuts both ways, and it’s depressing to see that one consequence of the new is a marked increase in the amount of genuinely awful behaviour performed by otherwise functional adults. Seeing ill-advised tweets, oversharing via Facebook updates and emotive personal posts, I’m reminded of the giddy immediacy of my teenage years, in which I existed in a state of selfish isolation, immersed in the frenzy of the Now.
Nothing was more important than my feelings that very second; I had no sense of, or interest in a broader context or that my actions could have consequences of any significance. And this seems to be the case for many people online; the fact one feels this way at this moment is justification enough for broadcasting that information to the planet.
I feel, therefore I post.
Hal Niedzviecki refers to this phenomenon as “Peep Culture,” suggesting that we’re witnessing the tabloidization of everyday life.
Perhaps the logical progression of our paparazzi-fuelled, celebrity-obsessed culture is to have us believing that revelations of a wincingly personal nature are everyone’s business.
There again, we’re not taking out one page ads in the Times or employing a town crier to announce our break-ups or our shitty days at work. This behaviour is only occurring online.
I’d argue that it’s due to a combination of factors:
1) the false sense that these online spaces aren’t ‘serious’ and don’t have real life impact: the value of communication online is somehow seen as less than offline interaction
2) the ease, speed and accessibility with which one can post anything from anywhere. An emotion that probably would have dissipated by the time you’d put pen to paper and started looking for a stamp is shared, out there and un-retractable in three seconds flat.
3) an erroneous belief that these spaces are somehow lawless, frontier territory where all bets are off, crimes go unpunished and an outlaw-esque anonymity can be preserved
A post on the Social Media Law Student blog makes the point that
People will express themselves, albeit to their own detriment, through numerous mediums whether by electronic communication, acts of aggression, verbal comments, physical actions, written letters, and more. Social media networks such as Facebook and MySpace are not to blame for sheer stupidity…
…but they do make stupid actions harder to retract and easier to prove.
Our actions have implications, consequences; the spaces may be virtual, but this is very real.
Thirty-five percent of employers reported finding content on social networking sites that caused them not to hire the candidate; Facebook evidence was used to convict gang members in Britain who posted photos of themselves posing with guns; Australian courts allow legal documents to be served via Facebook; lawyers have begun to use social profiles in divorce cases. Four Awkward Moments on Facebook is hilarious, unless you’re one of the people involved: I can only imagine the lacerating sense of shame and hurt they must have experienced.
Part Two: Imagining the future ( a proto-post)
I’m confident that the next generation will view our bumbling online interactions with humour and, I hope, some pity, much in the way that I view photographs of my parents in their heyday; fondly and with affectionate mockery. I can’t predict what these new models of behaviour will look like but I wonder whether our notions of public and private space will be fundamentally redefined; will a new set of boundaries be created or will these constructs simply have drifted into irrelevance?
Will the citizens of the future live in digital glass houses?
When everything is on display and there’s no separation between your inside voice and outside voice, will people’s personal (increasingly public lives) cease to have any interest or relevance – is the sense of intimacy we use to build social cohesion in part derived from the sense one is holding privileged information? In this landscape, our perceptions of each other would be based on new criteria and new values not related to how much we earn or who we’re screwing. Although I find this a faintly terrifying prospect, I can’t help but feel this re-imagining of our future is the most exciting, the most radical (and the least likely to occur).
Alternatively, will this new generation, kids who’ll take in the digital space with their mother’s milk become the New New Puritans? There is surely a possibility they will enact a backlash against the over-availability and over-sharing of information, images and personal data. With public figures as influential as Obama warning schoolkids to think about the long term consequences of the stuff they share on Facebook, will we see a generation of locked down profiles, gated social spaces and private Twitter streams. Will we become paranoiac data-hoarders, carefully considering every piece of information dispersed through the web?
Or – returning to Planet Reality – will we just have to grow up, embrace the new and reign in some of the worst excesses of overly disclosive behaviour in favour of a more reasoned approach? Being a teenager is fun, but we can’t remain in a virtual NeverNeverland forever.
It may be more staid and a little less compelling than the ambulance-chasing, Schadenfreudian thrill of watching someone crash and burn online, but perhaps fewer hearts and reputations damaged beyond repair is worth losing out on a little second-hand salaciousness for….