Think back to the first time you saw or heard the expression ‘social media’. What came to mind when you first encountered it? My first impression, and one that has stuck, is that it was an online extension of myself: my activities, ideas, friends, and family. Yet recently, I’ve come feel that the ‘social’ part of the term is beginning to feel too organized and somewhat constrained by its role. “Aren’t our relationships actually more chaotic and unpredictable than what ‘social’ permits us to express?” I asked a friend the other day. “Isn’t ‘social’ actually kind of… messy?”
Social is messy but our participation has to some extent made it more utilitarian. ‘Social’ is now a measurable quotient based on your participation online, a profile that influences how you employable you are, your credit-worthiness, your place. As such, it is something that everyone has to consider managing and structuring with an eye to their financial well being.
You could argue that one’s ‘place’ in society has always been currency of some form or another, and that observing each other’s behavior in the digital commons is no different. The difference is that your participation is underwritten by somebody you don’t know who wants to know a lot about your behavior online. This is the tacit agreement all of us has made, the one that’s redefining ‘privacy’ as well: To have a largely unregulated Internet, all its users understand that they will have to be quantified.
Quantifying people’s habits it not inherently asocial, but it could possibly limit this on-going online experiment by encouraging a type of self-censorship—a choice to sanitize your Internet experience for others. And it matters whether ‘social’ is messy or not because the framers of the Constitution recognized that everything about creating a viable democratic society was going to be messy. Their tenure was not marked by general consensus but by bitter division and acquiescence. A system of checks and balances was put in place precisely because the people’s self-interest often trumped any sense of duty to society at large.
All of us have to monitor and manage our online presence as best we can. That’s common sense. What I am asking you to consider as you fashion your ‘social’ profile is to what extent you have steered away from taking a risk with content and what implications that has for how all of us represent ourselves. Can we truly be a democratic society when this generation and the next self-censors as way of remaining viable as a participant in one’s community?