Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Social Media, Freedom, and Worlds Colliding

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic has put up two interesting blog posts about the issue he calls "worlds colliding," that is, how the ubiquity of social media has made it much harder to be one kind of person at work and a different kind on the weekends. He starts from a claim made by University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson:
People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free.
Friedersdorf thinks this is overstated and prefers this formulation:
The ability to slip into a domain and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining identities in other domains is something most Americans value, both to live in peace amid difference and for personal reasons.
He then tosses off a bunch of stories about people who get in trouble at work for something they said on Facebook or Twitter to a group of acquaintances that does not include anyone they work with, the sort of stories we are all familiar with.

Obviously there are limits to the sort of private life you can maintain on the side; nobody thinks that serial killers have a right to day jobs. But what if you are a serial killer fanboy and maintain a web site full of creepy trivia about serial killers and like to chat with other people about your favorite serial killers? Do you have the right to keep that private? Or do your colleagues and employer have a right to know this about you? Does your employer have a right to fire you for it? What if you post something really offensive and people start demonstrating outside the restaurant where you work and scaring away customers?

What if you're a middle school teacher and your students find out you've written racy fan fiction under a pseudonym? Can you be fired for that?

What if you have controversial political views? I have personally been told by several professors that they could simply never write online about a wide range of topics because their beliefs would get them in big trouble at work. There are things which I would never write about here.

I suppose this is related to the old internet argument about concealing your identity online. On the one hand this frees you to say controversial things, but on the other it enables horrific bullying and other forms of nastiness. Some people still do maintain separate online identities, but the software is getting better and better and tying all your online stuff together. Plus, many people in the tech world do not agree that you have any right to such privacy; Mark Zuckerberg once expressed what looked like real outrage at the thought that people would maintain different Facebook accounts for different interests and different groups of friends.

When Friedersdorf asked his readers to share their experiences in this line he heard from many for whom separating their worlds is vital, for example one who spends a lot of time in forms for victims of abuse he suffered but that his family and friends know nothing about. But he also heard from people who say that we need to shame people who behave badly because we are just way too nasty to each other in general and maybe the threat of a viral video of your worst moment is just what you need to straighten you out.

I'm curious what my readers think, and do.


Shadow said...

I think the problem with social media is first about how crowded it is, and only second about related privacy. All participants exist on the head of a pin and are shouting in each other's faces. You don't need an alias to be rude and crude. That you actually have never met is crucial.

G. Verloren said...

I don't think any of this is new - just the most modern version of ancient issues.

Consider someone like Voltaire, writing under a nom de plume to protect himself from backlash over his constroversial views that he couldn't express freely otherwise. Or look at the many female authors who passed themselves off as men in order to be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand. Et cetera.

The difference today is merely one of medium and the scope of participation. Instead of writing letters and printing books, today people are tweeting and the like.

And instead of most of the world's population being illiterate peasants whose ignorant opinions previously would never matter because they would never be heard, today it's trivially easy for any idiot to get a message out to the entire world, and if it gets noticed amongst the sea of so many other such messages, it actually CAN matter.

And that latter point, I feel, is key. We've democratized communication, and the people who previously could say whatever they wanted because it would never be heard outside their provincial hometowns, and who previously never had need to communicate well or employ logic and actual knowledge in their opinions, suddenly find themselves under a scrutiny they've never known before.

Simply put, they're simply not used to being in the public eye, and they don't all understand or appreciate what being there means, or how they should modulate their speech to avoid unwanted criticism and condemnation.

And at the exact same time, it also cuts the other way. Any ignorant rube can now come across the words of someone from across the country, and criticize and condemn them from an ignorant emotional level, and leap on bandwagons with dozens, hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of other reactionary nobodies who know nothing.

Imagine if every time Voltaire published a work criticizing the Church, not only could any illiterate peasant who wanted to have it read to them instantly, but they could also instantly collect on Voltaire's doorstep by the thousands to shout angrily at him about the sanctity of the church, and how they were being persecuted unfairly, and how he should be put to death for heresy, and all the rest.

The fundamental weakness of democracy is that its quality is dependent on the quality of the masses. That's true in politics, and its equally true in communication. If everyone has a voice, but the majority of people are ignorant, emotional, irrational, and crude, then the result is that the dialogue of society suffers for it. Democracy only works properly when people are informed and care about logic and principles more than they care about holding power.

David said...

My first and main reaction is that that Michigan philosopher's comment is bizarre. It's such a specialized idea of freedom, and I can't imagine that that's really what a lot of people mean by freedom. I imagine a lot of people would say freedom is the exact opposite of what she says--freedom means that you can relax and be the same person in a range of different venues, without the effort-demanding boundaries she seems to be describing. Personally, I don't feel that I am that different a person at work, home, play, or online--for one thing, I'm too lazy and forgetful, and probably too vain, to keep all that very separate. And I'm delighted that I don't have to go to religious services at all and pretend I am someone I am not.

G. Verloren said...


"Personally, I don't feel that I am that different a person at work, home, play, or online"

What exactly do you mean by this? Do you not behave differently in different situations? Or do you adjust your behavior situationally, but not consider it to be enough to alter "who you are"?

What sort of job do you work, and what are the expectations of professionalism in that job? People who work in service industries and deal directly with customers tend to have to adopt very specific kinds of artificial behaviors and mannerisms, that people in other fields do not. Many jobs also require special forms of dress that the people working them typically do not adopt in other situations - most people don't put on a uniform or wear business attire when they're not at work.

If you work a job where no one cares how you dress, you can wear your hair / beard however you please, and you don't have to modulate your speech or mannerisms for the sake of others, et cetera, then it's pretty easy to feel like your identity doesn't have to be concealed or modulated. But not everyone is quite so lucky, and it's very common for people to have to suppress their at-home identity and adopt a fabricated work persona instead during the daily grind.

This is particularly true for the poor, for women, and for minorities. You'd be hard pressed to fnd a black Muslim lesbian who works as a waitress who would say they don't feel like a completely different person at work compared to at home.

David said...


My comment was entirely aimed at the Michigan philisopher's definition of freedom. I understand very well that many people feel they have to maintain separate identities in different venues, and that they attain a precious measure of security thereby. But the necessity to maintain one's security in this way seems oppressive to me, and I gather from your tone that you regard it as oppressive too. In this sense, the Michigan philosopher is calling freedom what the putative black Muslim lesbian waitress may regard as cruel necessity imposed from outside, difficult to manage and, at best, delicate in its solution.

szopen said...

First time ever I am agreeing with Verloren :D

Sometimes one HAS to maintain separate identities, and this is in fact sometimes formalized (when, for example, someone acts and speaks as an official of some kind, and as a private person).

Another thing is that for years I thought that I do not have to care about such exotic problems. The straightforwardness and tolerance for controversial views was always valued in Poland, but within last few years it seems to creep away, bit by bit and attitude seems to change from "if you are offended, it's your problems" to "if you offend, it's your problem". Definetely there are things which I would no longer think I am able to write on internet, even when chatting with friends.

Which brings me to an actual problem, not sure whether I will be able myself clearly on this: in the past, talking with friends was without the use of technology and couldn't be dug out years later. Today, I communicate with friends almost exclusively using internet, because we are spacially dispersed over Poland and even world. We discuss using technology we don't own and every our private chat can be recorded and used. That's a game changer; as if someone would continously spy on our private conversations. As if we were living in dystopic police state.

G. Verloren said...


Ahh, I see. It appears we are in agreement, as I also feel that sort of identity modulation is certainly not freedom, although I can see why someone might try to portray it as such. Some people feel liberated by their chains.