Social-Media Outrage Is Collapsing Our Worlds
The internet once made it easier to slip from one domain to another. Is there a way to preserve that vital freedom?
The Costs and Benefits of Worlds Colliding
Readers weigh in on the ways that social media has changed our freedom to show different aspects of our identities in different domains.
I recently suggested that the rise of social media has undermined something that a great many Americans value: the ability to slip into a given domain and to adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate there, without that affecting one’s reception in other domains.
The article elicited many responses. Below is an edited selection of reader letters, beginning with one from a man who personifies the phenomenon:
I am a teacher. I have published works of fiction. I’ve written newspaper articles. And I’m a lay religious leader. I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done in any of these contexts. I would not mind having a dispassionate, mature person observe me in any of these aspects of my life.
But my religious beliefs are not appropriate for my classroom. My views as an educator make me more liberal than many in my faith. I have written PG-13 books that I would not want a young student to read. And I have people I know from my past whom I love who say things I find stupid, or whose political or cultural beliefs are silly or uninformed or flawed. They are not bad or objectively odious (e.g., racism, etc.). I am not ready to abandon relationships with these people. Nevertheless, I don’t want them to meet everyone I know on Twitter.
Part of me feels that it’s simply no one’s business what I do. But in the social-media world, it’s not only that our worlds have collapsed, it’s that people feel empowered to not only observe, but to comment and actively intrude in each world. I don’t think it even takes a misstep or mistake to cause destruction (I use that word carefully). Of more concern to me is that something absolutely appropriate in any one context could cause absolute destruction in all other domains. If I wrote a book that many people loved but a conservative-leaning parent found offensive, I could be fired at school. Something I said at church might anger someone whose progressive views made them skeptical of religion. I could be quietly ignored by a newspaper editor. If a piece I wrote conflicted with religious sensibilities, I could be expelled. If enough people made enough noise, I could lose my job, even if what I did had no bearing on what I did or said in my classroom.
In my mind, then, it’s not only that a small mistake or misstep can bring the maximum penalty, but that doing something that is absolutely right in one subgroup or place could be anathema to people in another. It wouldn’t even have to be someone who has an interest in me or what I do. They just may dislike something and want to exact maximum penalty. Suddenly one is without health insurance and the ability to find work. This is why I cherish the ability to move between worlds. Not because anything I do is wrong, but because each world has its own rules, expectations, mores, and I don’t really feel that someone from one world (or someone who is simply a voyeur and is in none of them) ought to have much impact on what I do in another.