The other day (this was originally published back in 2014) I heard a talk by Emma Sadleir, a lawyer who specializes in the legalities of living in the unreal world. Since I’m a media theorist of a sort, I’ve tended to talk and write about social media in somewhat abstract terms, but Sadleir is much more concrete. Whereas I’ve tended to leave people to draw their own conclusions, Sadleir was unambiguous. I realized in listening to her that this more concrete approach may actually have some merit. So, from the notes I took and in conversation with some of the the things I’ve looking at in my own travels through theory, I’ve compiled a kind of short list of principles that may help to keep the social media sphere a safe place to hang out in. By and large, I still regard the cybersphere as an inverted world of a kind, so that idea is what guides the principles that follow:
Principle 1: Servitude is the new freedom
When you sign up to join social media, you might think how lovely it is that it’s free. Well, it’s not free, and you’re not free either, especially when you sign up to write on walls and look at pictures of cats like they did in Ancient Egypt. It’s all there to make money out of you by selling your information to corporations who want to advertise to you via a range of preprogrammed algorithms. You may think that this is okay because you don’t have to buy what they’re selling, but I’m not convinced that it’s as harmless as all that because ultimately you’re still sacrificing your privacy and your information for the sake of things you don’t necessarily believe in. A great deal of advertising is also what I would call visual pollution, and I’m not convinced that having junk photons bombard your eyeballs is all that wholesome.
Principle 2: Publicity is the new privacy
We’d like to think that everything we put up on a social media platform — a platform I often refer to as YouInstaTwitFace — is private. It’s not. Whenever you Facebook, Tweet or Instagram anything, or Whatsapp or Whatsoever, you need to know this: you’re giving your words away. Even when you say something banal like “I’ve just spilled my coffee on my phone. LOL” or post a picture of your dog chewing off your foot it may be helpful to put “© Facebook” or “© Twitter” or “© Instagram” at the end of your sentence to remind you who owns what you say. You’re there to serve the platform, not the other way around. To reiterate, every photo you’ve ever put up on Facebook is owned by Facebook. Every pic you’ve taken using an Instagram filter is owned by Instagram. Big bother (no typo intended) is watching you.
It’s worth noting that Facebook, for instance, changes their terms and conditions almost daily (or so it seems) and this has meant in certain cases that what someone posted at one time as “private” at another time has become very, very public. If you wouldn’t want your parents or a predator or the police or your potential employer or your school principle to see what you’re posting online, then don’t post it online. Even if it’s “private” now, it may not be at a later stage (as Edward Rocknroll discovered fairly recently). Never, even for a second, think that you’re anonymous online, even if you operate under a pseudonym.
Principle 3: Permanence is the new transience
The internet is a big room with everybody in it, and what you say in the room stays in the room. This is as creepy as it sounds. Even if you’re a very nice person now, your past cyber misdemeanors will stay there for your future boss to find and use against keeping you in his employ. As Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in his book Present Shock, we’re living now in the perpetual present. Everything you’ve done and been is now, now, now, and now just like digital time. Treat everything you put out there as if it were a tattoo on the mind of the cloud. Paris Brown probably wishes she’d thought of this before she ruined her own reputation.
Principle 4: Flat is the new 3D
Whatever you say out there in cyberspace is decontextualized (so things can be read in a variety of ways) and tone-deaf (so things like humour and sarcasm are often misread). You may say something on TwitFace with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek, but the world sees only your words. Reflect, then, a little more on what you want to say before saying it. If you saw those very same words on a billboard, with your face and your name attached, without any additional context, would you still want them to be out there?
Principle 5: Loud is the new silence
The fifth amendment is dead. Ok, not really. I’m not an American, so just bear in mind that I’m only using it here because it’s become a filmic metaphor for the “right to remain silent”. If you say it on the internet, you are already waiving your right to silence. Speech and memory are much more forgiving of our occasional errors. Not YouInstaTwitFace. You may like your freedom of speech (and this inglorious world of self-publishing) but that right does not supersede other inalienable human rights like the right to dignity and the right to a decent reputation. Sadleir’s metaphor for this is quite fitting: You have the right to wave your fist around, but the moment your fist connects with someone’s face, you lose that right; because someone else has the right to not have their face pummeled. Your human rights only extend as far in front of you as will allow the rights of others to remain in tact.
Principle 6: Fake is the new real
People can quite easily create fake profiles. Just be aware of this. The fact that we’re editing ourselves so much in any case creates a fake self out there in Fakebook land. I see the digital sphere as somewhat paradoxical: it exaggerates reality through language (and the ideologies that reside in language), but at the same time amputates reality through omission. It’s helpful to keep this paradox in mind.
1) Your online life is an extension of you, but it also amputates your character by replacing your life with your words. So it’s best to say only those things that you know reflect on who you want to be.
2) Never think of yourself as anonymous online. You’re effectively a celebrity now, albeit a severely underpaid one.
3) If you wouldn’t say it to your mother, don’t say it online.
4) The internet is your frienemy. It’s wonderful if you’re doing the right thing, but it can get you into some major trouble. What you say in the electronic sphere is often admissible as evidence in a court of law. This is good news for people hell-bent on suing anyone, but not for anyone else really.
5) I like the Arrested Development idea of having an “Anti-Social Network”. It’s called life. I’m making a concerted effort to spend more time living, and that’s working out wonderfully.