originally published on the Coding Duck blog: www.ccstechme.com/coding-duck-blog
Not too long ago I was reading a book about a small town. Everybody in this small town knew each other well while not everybody got along, most people respected their differences enough to mind their own business. It was classic small town stuff: the Mayor’s father had also been Mayor, the Sheriff never attended an academy or College, and the richest guy in town would be considered a small-time property management company anywhere else in the world. The town drunk knew that the cot in the police station’s single jail cell was pretty much free for his use, and all the local cops knew that he was more of a nuisance than a threat. When a child was young, everybody let the parents be parents the way that they personally had decided to. When that child was a young adult, every person in the town looked out for them, and they caught hell from all of their neighbors when they did the stupid things that young adults inevitably do. But, once the hell-catching was finished, the matter was dropped and that young adult grew from the experience, and moved on without ever having that incident thrown in their face again. Ultimately, the locals had known that child since they was born, and also knew that kids do stupid stuff. The past was the past, and the man or woman that child became was a better person for having done stupid things and learned from their mistakes.
While most people probably think the aforementioned book was about some small town in Montana in the 1950’s, it wasn’t. In fact, there was no book at all. What I just described was what it was like for me to grow up as a kid in the early 90’s. And I didn’t live in a small town, I lived in one of the biggest cities on the East Coast of the US. So what happened?
There are a lot of answers to that question: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat are some of the more famous. And while many people will get to this point and think something like If you do something dumb, don’t share it on social media or The world is a more connected place now so we’re just going to have to get used to this. And while the first statement is absolutely try, I disagree with the second. I’ve been in technology since I was a teenager. The world was an extremely connected place when I started. But this problem of people being crucified for past mistakes, errant tweets, misguided attempts to be funny, etc, is a problem that is fairly recent. James Gunn, and more recently, Kevin Hart are great examples of this. Why is it that these gentlemen are getting in more trouble now than they did when they first posted those inflammatory tweets? It’s not like Twitter didn’t exist back then. And its not like the issues they said stupid things about, namely Alternate Sexuality and Pedophilia, weren’t extremely sensitive issues. So why now?
Granted, I am not defending what was said by either of those guys. Honestly, it is none of my business what they say online. That is their choice and its not like me saying anything would have made a difference to them at that moment anyway. But what I find bizarre is the fact that Social Media becoming this titanic soap-box is relatively new. Even politicians use it for grandstanding more than ever, and celebrities are using these platforms more and more to force onto us opinions or products we can largely live without.
My belief is that Social Media needs limits. I don’t mean regulatory limits (although that is definitely part of it), I mean content limits. Platforms have been trying different versions of this for a while now. Twitter’s 160 character limit, Vine’s 6-second video limit, Instagram’s 12-second video limit, to name a few. But the problem with these limits is that you can post as much content as you want as long as it is within these constraints. There were no limits to how many 6-second videos you could post on Vine. No constraints to the number of tweets allowed in a given time. So what happens? Tweets, videos, photos, etc get cherry-picked tabloid-style from hundreds and hundreds of unoffensive pieces of content to spin somebody in the light you choose. What if you could only tweet 6x per month? Well, then you’d have to be very careful about what you put online. And if somebody used most of their limited tweets to say horrible things or grandstand with a ridiculous amount of bias, you wouldn’t need to cherry-pick, it would be pretty obvious what their true feelings are.
For example, I follow a lot of CEOs and tech people on LinkedIn. I also follow a lot of technology pros and celebrities I like on Twitter. From their social media profiles, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer and Karen Hunter all seem like brilliant, compassionate people that really care about the world and want it to be a better place. On the other hand, people like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and pretty much any female politician are portrayed as whiny, irritating, self-absorbed babies from affluent families that don't know what real problems are. Now, I have never met a single one of these people. I doubt I've ever been in the same State as one. And yet, because they use limited space to say something to a huge audience, we judge their entire existence. Think about it, if all you knew about Elon Musk is that he was creating fully electric cars people actually want, and technology to terraform mars just in case the electric cars are too little too late for Earth, you would wonder how close he actually was to completing a real Iron Man suit and fighting crime. But because he weaponizes the 'MuskBros', and apparently makes it quite obvious that he believes women should leave journalism and "go back to the kitchen", the only Tony Stark reference we make toward him is that we hope he is "pre-cave Tony" and needs to be captured by militants and forced to turn his own technology into a devastating weapon in order to get straightened out. So which person is he? Nobel Prize Elon, or "Pre-Cave" Elon? The same could be asked of any influencer on any platform anywhere.
My advice? Rather than trying to guess by a celebrtities Twitter feed, I would implore all social media users to try something for me: stop caring. Why is it that we allow our lives to be shaped, our moods controlled, and outrage to be stoked by somebody we have never met, spoken to, or even exchanged emails with? If you’ve been keeping up on Facebook’s latest scandal, you will see that they were well aware that the content on their platform was not always fully truthful, and was outright fabricated at times. How do you really know a person if all you see is their social media profile? Is a person’s life, values, and character so easily reduced to 160 characters or 12 seconds? Should we really be encouraging this? To me, we are all well aware that a magician making an elephant disappear in front of our very face is an illusion. Despite the fact that we saw every moment leading up to, and away from this amazing feat, we know there is some nonsense going on that we are simply not aware. And yet, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the brief look into a life that we are shown with only the details, context, and facts that somebody decides we should see is telling us the entire story. Perhaps, the sainthood or demonizing of a person on Social Media should rather inspire us to wonder what trick of the eye was just used, and where that “elephant” really disappeared to.