Recently in a discussion with friends, we questioned whether social media and the world of Internet data has resulted in us censoring ourselves more frequently. Certainly, we don’t say the same things to our parents and grandparents that we would to our close friends, but what about when everything you post online is viewable for nearly everyone you know? Everything we post or share on Facebook, Twitter, personal websites, forums, etc. is there for the public to view.
It’s reasonable to say that we’re less likely to spout nonsense, or at least know our claims and opinions won’t be safe from scrutiny. Maybe that means better fact checking, more efficient discussion, and more answers. But are there any downsides?
It’s known that people change behavior when they know they’re being watched. What if we feel that we are always being watched? Are we toning down our behavior as a society due to this? People are aware that they now have digital reputations and traceable digital tracks. Any comment, website visit, or purchase could be archived somewhere and dug back up for use against you.
This could encourage more positive posts and positive behavior, but it also discourages sharing unpopular views and discourages risk taking in conversations. If people are unwilling to suggest new ideas at the risk of being publicly shunned or receiving backlash, it could impede social evolution which must inherently arise through “creative destruction”. Similarly, to how business and tech innovation necessarily overthrows outdated enterprises, social progress can render aging cultural norms and thoughts obsolete. Humanity has shown in the past to believe that crazy ideas like bloodletting or lobotomies were legitimate medical procedures or that smoking was good for your throat. These ideas prevailed because enough people shared them and not enough questioned them. “Everyone knew they’re true”.
You could argue that these were scientific (not cultural) ideas spread before modern times and the Information Explosion, where ideas are up for more scrutiny and examination. Many such ideas are being eliminated from mainstream existence and rightly so. However, many social ideas that were once considered politically correct or legitimate – no women in the workplace, always be clean-shaven in business settings, racial segregation, marijuana is taboo, etc. – no longer prevail in most of society today due to people willing to challenge such norms.
So, what are we to make of widespread “big data” and the unforgetting nature of social media? Could this really be inducing conformity of thought? A fear of speaking out?
As the century moves forward, we will want to remind ourselves that its ok to speak up when your point of view is different from those around you. Perhaps more importantly, the onus will be on us as a society to allow lone voices and dissenting views in our groups and social circles to explain their differing views and thoughts. We don’t want to end up in a society where we have freedom of speech, yet are afraid to exercise our rights. Even in a big data/social media-driven world, people should be encouraged and allowed to be themselves. If not, it means that social rigidity, intimidation, and intolerance (or at least perceived intolerance) has prevailed. If we are afraid to express ourselves in creative or differing ways because it doesn’t conform to those around us, we limit cultural evolution and diminish what makes us human.