Social media, privacy, and self-censorship

I had a chance to attend the local Third Wednesday new media roundup here in Halifax this week. I unfortunately arrived late and also had to leave early (work called, and prior engagements beckoned), so I didn’t hear the entire debate about social media and the workplace, and I certainly couldn’t take part in it since the room was overflowing with guests. But I did catch a few quips and statements that I wished I could take part in:

1. Social Media as personal branding. I can only nod in agreement to this: even the newest, greenest twitterer will quickly realize that social media shines when the person comes out from behind the curtain. Promote yourself, and the organization you are a part of will soon be part of your conversations with other people.

2. The “Facebook Generation” and Privacy. Some people wondered aloud what the “Facebook Generation” is doing to themselves, or even worse, what “we’re” doing to them by allowing so much crude and otherwise private material to be discovered online. I was surprised to hear statements like this from a group of people who are deeply entwined in social media: it’s one thing to think about consequences, but it’s another to damn the reason why we’ve all congregated here. But I digress. What bothered me about this conversation was that there was little consideration of the fact that younger people – whether you want to call them “Generation Next” or not – have grown up in a world with a different sense of what should be private and what should not be. It won’t matter as much to this generation whether or not a tasteless photo of their youth is discovered when they’re running for political office. And just as hippies soon grew up and became the establishment, one day this generation will grew up and become the establishment, and their own social mores will affect the larger social fabric. In my mind, it is all akin to Bill Clinton‘s (second-)famous statement, “I didn’t inhale.”

3. Self-censorship. The conversation ended with a rousing debate about the ends to which people will “self-censor” online and whether this a good thing or not. This is a moot point, because we mediate our notions of our selves every day, whether or not we are online or not. Just as we will tell the same story differently to our grandmother and our best friend, and just as we’re a little more guarded with people we have just met than with our lifelong buddies, so do we mediate our person with our different online communities. The fact that I don’t say X online because I don’t know what Y particular “friend” may think of it is no different from the fact I hold back on saying Z at the office even though I may say it at the bar or at home. Of course I’m painting with broad strokes and generalizing to a certain degree on this one, but my point is that self-censorship and social media is not a new phenomena but an everyday part of our everyday lives. We are social animals, with or without our always-on connection to the internet.

(in spite of all those criticisms, I enjoyed my time and will definitely be back for next month’s talk – social media and political movements. This is something I can shake a few fists at and support..)