The idea that social media allows us to engage in online conversations is getting people into all kinds of trouble, because what we’re doing when we click “Tweet” on Twitter or “Share” on Facebook isn’t conversation — it’s publication.
Imagine you’re chatting with a real friend in a real cafe. The following might be true of your conversation:
- It is just between the two of you, and not meant for others. If you’re not cautious, a couple of people might overhear.
- There’s no permanent record of your conversation.
- Your body language, eye movement and facial expressions can convey extra dimensions of meaning.
- Except under a few special circumstances, there are no regulations requiring prior approval of the words you speak, and no potential for legal liability after you speak.
None of this applies to the so-called online conversation:
- Anything you publish online could potentially be visible to millions of people. Twitter, for example, still has a thing called “the public timeline” where all tweets are reproduced and can be found by search engines and services that aggregate tweets. If you haven’t set your Facebook privacy settings properly, your status updates will be visible to everyone. (It’s unclear what everyone means. It could mean everyone on the web, which would mean 1.7 billion people, or everyone on Facebook, in which case it would only be 500 million people.) Anyone who is monitoring your social network activities (trust me, someone is doing this) only needs to take a screen shot to have a permanent record of something long after you’ve tried to cover your online footsteps.
- If you publish a tweet via Twitter, even if you delete it, some search engines maintain cache, a kind of memory, and will retain the information contained in the tweet. The same is true of information on other networks that you think you deleted. It could live on for years. There are sites like TwapperKeeper that archive tweets.
- There is no nuance or context at all for messages online, apart from the occasional smiley face or LOL.
- What you “say” online is increasingly subject to the regulations and laws that pertain to published, not spoken, words. If you worked at Nokia and told your friend in the cafe that a certain competitive mobile phone sucked, you would not be in legal jeopardy. If you did the same thing online, you might be construed as a representative of Nokia, and the FTC might not approve of your competitive practice.
I was chatting with Nadia Matos of CTV Southwestern Ontario, and I mentioned one of my favorite Marshall McLuhan quotations, “Publication is self-invasion of privacy.” We threw this idea around a little and together came up with the idea that online communications are a form of publication, not conversation, and a failure to understand this distinction can be troublesome.
Problems arise when we behave in so-called online conversations as if we are in real conversations. We say things without considering whether we want them permanently recorded in an online archive available to nearly 2 billion people. We tweet an offhand remark to a friend, in a simulation of a one-to-one conversation, which happens to be visible to 500 million people. Our most casual remarks are recorded for future employers, business competitors, customers, clients, potential litigants, political adversaries and others.
That’s because we’re publishing, not conversing. No need to worry about the surreptitious encroachment of Big Brother in this world. You may already have invited him in the front door.