It’s indisputable that the emergence of social media has changed the way we communicate. Once a privilege of a certain profession – and often of a certain class – the phenomenon of the public statement has become democratised, opened up to anybody with an Internet connection and keyboard. Even the most mundane public online comments are now held in perpetuity; searchable and retrievable. A change of heart cannot erase what has been thought and what has been said.
An inevitable consequence of this new technology is the concept of ‘responsible’ social media usage. The rationale is simple: if what you have written is permanent, then it is a good idea to be careful about what you say. It is this widely held paradigm that I wish to critique in this essay.
First, let us consider that statement in further depth. The key word here is ‘careful’. ‘Careless’ writing is an expression of pure id; stream-of-consciousness writing with no concept of censorship, self-restraint or conventions of sentence structure. The alternative is to edit, to repress, to self-censor and to be aware of potential consequences.
These restraints have existed in some form or other since language began, and they operate upon nearly every social media post, too. A social media posting, however, is unlike ‘real-life’ conversation. That is not to say that conversations do not take place online, and that these conversations do not follow familiar conventions. These all have a beginning point, however, and they are more often than not an undirected broadcast; a remark made to oneself, to everybody, to nobody.
Where else have we seen anything like this phenomenon? The most obvious comparison is the private diary; but, unlike diarists, most Internet users don’t think to keep their blogs or social media accounts private. The second comparison is the pulpit, or the political leader’s soapbox; but one must be granted access to such positions. A third comparison is artistic expression, but this – at least, in its conventional forms – is the most carefully constructed of all modes of expression.
In contrast to all of these, social media platforms are typically public, unrestricted to anyone with Internet access and relatively spontaneous. Thus, it can be said that public speech has never been so unfettered or instantaneous as it is now – never provided such a direct link between thought and expression.
This poses an immediate threat to conservative power structures. Conservatism, after all, is entirely dependent upon social stratification, unchallenged traditions and a self-censorship that goes above and beyond the normal restraints on human communication. For an authoritarian, the equation is simple: new forms of expression necessitate new forms of control.
One might expect the authoritarian backlash to come from governments; however, a long tradition of Western distrust of government has gradually blunted that drive. Democratic governments nowadays are too fixated on retaining their own fleeting periods of power to get too gung-ho about cracking down on freedom of speech (though they still take every chance they can get).
They hardly need to, in any case. In a society in which employment is a requirement, the citizen’s contract with the government – that is, the legal system – is not the only negotiation of power to be made. Our employers also make demands; demands that increasingly stretch beyond work hours. It is no longer sufficient for an employee to spend eight hours a day under a business’s jurisdiction; many codes of conduct insist that behaviour outside of the workplace must not bring the employer into disrepute. This is the reasoning behind the creation of corporate social media policies: they act as a protection of the brand against negative associations; against the notion that it might harbour fallible individuals.
Whether or not a company’s reputation actually depends on the public perception of its employees’ private virtues is hard to say. Certainly, it seems that most people are capable of distinguishing between professional ethics and personal misdemeanours. Even if this is not the case, it seems creepy – not to mention unrealistic – to expect that all of the employees of the business one supports (or, for that matter, the political party one votes for) will lead morally unimpeachable lives outside of the workplace.
To many people, though, these policies are perfectly reasonable. “Don’t be stupid,” they argue. “Don’t post anything that might get you into trouble.” If you do, this attitude implies, you deserve what you get – after all, the policies were clearly spelled out in the contract.
Is it such a huge sacrifice to make, just to keep your employer happy? Perhaps not, if one sees social media as something trivial. But to many of us, social media platforms have become a huge part of our lives; of the way we interact with others. For our employers to dictate that this or that topic or opinion or mode of expression is unsuitable is to place a limitation on freedom of speech.
It’s possible that there are few more misunderstood concepts than free speech. It is not, as some libertarians characterise it, the right to say whatever you like without consequence. What free speech is – and the reason that it is so important – is a means of ensuring that dissenting political and artistic expression are protected. Ironically, this is exactly the sort of speech that employers are most likely to crack down upon.
Imagine, briefly, a society in which every conversation you have ever had – whether in the work environment, during a family dispute, or in bed with a lover – is publicly accessible. What precautions would need to be taken to ensure that nothing is said that might cause reputational damage down the track? What rights would need to be demanded to ensure that citizens could still live functional lives?
This may seem a far-fetched scenario – or once would have, in the days before data retention – but it is one that mass social media usage takes us closer to. For, if the gap between thought and expression is closing, then our need to be protected from authoritarian restrictions has increased. That must start with defending – whether through the unions or state legislation – the same fundamental freedoms that we expect as citizens.
Using personal social media accounts ‘irresponsibly’ is not stupidity, and neither should it lead to sanctions from our employers. When no laws are broken, it is simply an exercise in free speech. If we are to maintain a free society, then that right must be protected.