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the chilling effects of modern social media on free speech

I work for an entity that provides a rather critical service to the community in a very public way. Because of this, I have to routinely censor myself well beyond what I consider a comfortable amount of self censorship where my blog, tweets, and other socials are concerned. Right now you’re probably thinking that almost everyone has to do this, and those that don’t usually end up in a stinky pile of something they’d rather not be in. You would be correct in thinking this. However, it doesn’t make the situation any easier to swallow on a personal level.

Before I begin down the rabbit hole of this rant, allow me to first clarify that social media doesn’t actually provide the chilling effect I’m about to go into. The other people participating in it do. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter obviously don’t care if you’re posting about how drunk you got on a work night, or if a picture of your junk ended up on flickr. More than likely the worst result you can expect from them are more targeted advertisement for liquor and ointment.

No, its not the services. Its the people reading your stuff that you have to worry about.

We’ve all heard the stories. Olga Partyhardinsky makes a post about how girls night out Wednesday was so hilarious because they all got trashed, flashed a cop, spent an hour in jail, and didn’t get home until an hour before they had to be at work. Wow what a night. It was too much fun and too messed up not to share with the world, so she did. Then she straightened herself up, went to work, and got fired despite not letting her previous night’s drunken debauchery affect her cubicle performance. See, Olga’s boss can’t have people working for him that do this sort of thing. It makes Squeaky Clean & Sons, Inc. look really bad.

That’s right. Politics is what chills free speech more than anything else online. As citizens of this corrupt and broken country, we do have the right to say whatever the hell we want. We also have the right to suffer the consequences imposed on us by others because of what we say and even when we say it. Its the perception that other people may perceive a connection between Olga and Squeaky Clean that got her in all that trouble. A perception. Not an actual event.

This issue isn’t limited to employers and their enslaved, however. These days almost everyone is being forced to wear their work and church faces online unless they’ve taken measures to disconnect their online identities from themselves. The entire arrangement makes me sick to my stomach. What makes me even sicker is that I perpetuate this madness by not only participating, but also pointing out the idiots that do the kinds of things Olga did and laugh at them as if they should have known better. They shouldn’t have had to know better. They should have been able to say whatever the hell they wanted to say without fear of having the online equivalent of an off handed comment force them into a life changing decision process.

Politics rot away at the core of everything we know. Its one thing to behave yourself and decide that you as an individual are above a certain bar. Its another to try and drag other people up there with you, and an even more grotesque exercise in futility to fracture your identity into so many slivers and expect to be able to keep up with all of them. Sooner or later you’ll slip and face the reprisal of somebody’s perception of a perception.

Or maybe you won’t slip. Maybe your friends will slip up for you. Maybe your blogs and tweeters and book faces are all clean and tidy. Maybe your idiot friend tagged you in a picture featuring your uncanny ability to embarrass yourself that you didn’t even know about, and now your boss is looking at a rather odd configuration of you with questionable glassware. In this situation, the only thing you did wrong was show up at all. What now? Drop all the socials? Act like a fugitive and hide your face anytime somebody whips out a camera? You already have all your stuff locked down to friends only, but who the hell knows who is friends with whom? Your inbox is filling up with emails telling you that people you don’t even know are liking a picture you were tagged in.

No. None of this nonsense will do. We have effectively handed control of ourselves over to the worst offenders out there: people who pretend to be what they are not. Posers. Hypocrites. Closet dwellers.

Is there anything anyone can do about this? Short of a systemic adoption of some sort of “when you’re not on the clock I don’t care what you do” policy by everyone in the country, no there is not. If you truly want to express yourself without fear of consequence, you will be forced to remain anonymous, lurking in the shadows masquerading as some clever individual under some clever alias. Another face for your collection. It will remain this way as long as our species remains stupid, shallow, self-serving, and arrogant. In other words, forever.

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