Communication in this age is faster than any other. Social media enables something that you post to be seen by someone on the other side of the country, or even the world, in minutes. This has its advantages, but it has its drawbacks as well. People create public personas that contrast with private ones, and if there is too great a difference between these two, the result can be devastating.
Any communication is bound by its context. For example, take inside jokes. Two friends can find something hilarious that the rest of the world views as mundane because they are steeped in a context with each other. That context can be more elusive on the web. A post or a meme can mean entirely different things to different people. People read it and interpret it based on the context of their own life. What can be perfectly innocuous to some can be horribly offensive to others. Now there will always be people trying to stir the pot, trying to outrage, trying to offend. These people have always existed, and the Internet has created a fertile cesspool of these types, who often do it anonymously as trolls. But for everyone else, hurting people is not on the to-do list.
Reputations can be ruined at light speed in the Internet age. Senator Ted Cruz has been battling the public’s ridicule after his twitter account “liked” a pornographic post, which allegedly was done by an intern. People do not see only what you post, but what you like as well. In times past, privacy, or the idea of a separation of the private and public self, was impossible. Modernity, private quarters, private bathrooms, private family homes, etc., have all created this idea of privacy, and most of us dig it. But now people are willingly giving up that privacy for their share of attention in an environment where the attention span is increasingly short.
The Internet age has also created a hyper privacy of anonymity which people use to indulge vices that they do not wish the world to see. The gulf between the hyper private web and people’s public face on social media is much narrower than people think. After Charlottesville, many of the young men who participated were outed by social media as white supremacists, and they suffered the consequences. Within days, the entire country knew the faces and identities of these men. Within days the entire country can know your face and your identity for something far less heinous than being a white supremacist.
This isn’t meant to be a dire warning. The Internet is made to communicate ideas, jokes and stories, and it is the most fertile ground of communication we have ever had. But it requires thoughtful use. Before you post or like something, think about how someone might interpret it. Before you see the gulf between your private self and your public self as impenetrable, think about who your private self is, and if it is who you really want to be. The Internet allows anybody to be a storyteller, a prophet, a trickster or an artist. The whole world watches and listens. Watch and listen to yourself first.