Do You Need a Personal Policy on Online Sharing?

Most of us have an online presence of some kind. Most of us also know a person who refuses to use certain online platforms or social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Google, etc. Whether you use none or several of these platforms, you have more likely than not thought about what you should and should not share online. You probably already have what we might call a personal policy on online sharing.

Today it is obvious that you should not share everything online on your professional or personal accounts. You should also be aware that different platforms provide different levels of access to whatever you share: some social media networks are fairly closed and others public. (Sometimes these networks are hacked and the users’ personal information is downloaded by people looking to exploit it.) If you decide to opt out completely, your data will be safe. But few of us do opt out, because social media has many benefits that enrich our daily lives.

Several books and studies that examine how people behave on social media have been published recently. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017) looks at online culture from a perspective that highlights the snarky, mean, cynical, clever and juvenile rhetoric that used to thrive on Internet forums. This attitude still prevails among the 4chan-crowd and their ilk, and the fear of being bullied by anonymous creeps is justified. Such groups have the power to oust anyone they choose from social media and they are often flippant enough to do so.

One of the most famous cases of massive online shaming happened in 2013 when Justine Sacco posted a joke on Twitter. The joke was in very poor taste and was retweeted numerous times while Sacco was logged out of her social media. When she logged back in the damage was already done and she had become infamous in just a few short hours. Jon Ronson writes of the case in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) and laments the fact that those shaming Sacco were not from the slimy underbelly of the Internet, but regular Twitter users. Ronson’s point seemed to be that many of us are just one step away from becoming vicious people who will not think twice about shaming someone online.

Dr Molly Crockett from Yale’s Crockett Labs is a neuroscientist who has studied the way we experience moral outrage online. In her article, Moral Outrage in the Digital Age (2017), Crockett points out that expressing moral outrage does have potential social benefits, but that digital media limits these benefits in many ways: online communities create echo chambers, they make it difficult to distinguish between truly heinous and merely disagreeable content, and they make the morally outraged less likely to do anything about real social issues. The problem is that expressing moral outrage is rewarding in itself and new tools like social media make this kind of self-gratification easier than ever. In an online lecture, Crockett speaks of “pure destructive retribution” and “outrage porn” that have no other function but to feed our need for the neurocandy produced by our own moral outrage.

We have probably experienced this ourselves at some point. In his book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), the author Jaron Lanier’s third argument is: “Argument 3: Social media is turning you into an asshole. […] Please take the possibility seriously.” And we should take it seriously by, at the very least, taking a look at our own behavior online. When you do, you notice that there is a lot to be anxious about on social media. You will probably also notice that you will be happier if you are able to detach yourself from it from time to time. It is a public forum, after all, where people are watching what you do and where everything you do will leave a trace. You are also watching people watching you and may even attach your self-worth to the way faceless strangers judge you online. This is unhealthy and incredibly stressful since you are giving people you don’t know enormous power over you.

How, then, should all this feed into your own personal policy on online sharing? You should draw your own conclusions, of course, but here are a few of mine. One, don’t assume social media is something it’s not. It’s a tool for communication, for teaching, publishing and a way of creating online communities. Use it as a tool or a means for something else. Two, the fear of online shaming should be considered very real. It’s like a fear of infection and shaming behavior makes very little sense when it does happen, but we think it is based on our brain chemistry — on second thought, it’s more like a fear of a zombie outbreak. It’s a risk we have to take online. Luckily, most people never have to go through online shaming and we are working on ways of mending it. (Those of you who read Finnish may want to read my interview with Dr Molly Crockett in the next issue of niin & näin. I will ask the journal if I can share some of her insights here as well.) Third, find your own community online. Knowing where you are sharing and with whom helps alleviate anxiety. When you share something within a closed or private community, your stuff may still leak out, but at least the risk is smaller when you know the community and its people.

Any thoughts? Please leave them in the comments.