Monday, March 12, 2012

Some Thoughts Are Better Left Untweeted: Is Social Media Eroding Self-Control?

Our blog has moved. You will find this blog post and fresh content on our new Talascend IT blog.
In line with last week’s blog about social media applications and ramifications surrounding airline travel, a recent article by CNN’s Todd Leopold regarding the speed, sociology and psychology surrounding social media got me thinking once again.

The gist of his story is that social media has the ability to spread public missteps and misinformation so rapidly that unintentional (and sometimes intentional) blunders are often seen as truth even after being proved false. The Leopold goes further and conveys that the “need to be first” and instant access to a worldwide audience has changed the way we interact with each other, the way we get our “news,” and it’s beginning to creep into our everyday non-online lives, not to mention the lasting effects of reacting before thinking in cyberspace. You can hit delete but the damage has already been done in some instances.

One item from the story really stuck with me and got my wheels spinning. The author references sociologist Erving Goffman’s observation that people often carry with them a “front-stage” and “backstage” personality. Meaning when we are in front of others we present ourselves one way much like an actor on stage and the second the curtain drops, the “real” self comes out. A pop culture expert goes on to say that we are becoming more “backstage” every day.


As I stated last week in the airline article, people say and do things they would never say or do in person via the web. Rants, political agendas, gossip and fulfilling the need to be in the spotlight are only an instant smart phone visit away. Take for instance, Gilbert Gottfried’s tasteless Tweets about the earthquake disaster in Japan. They had their intended effect. He was front and center in the headlines. It also came with professional consequences, as it cost him a relatively lucrative job voicing the Aflac duck.

It takes me to my main point. Professional “front stage” behavior seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. I’m not taking about the over-served co-worker with a lampshade on his head at an office party. I am talking about really inappropriate and instantaneous reactions by professionals to work related situations. Rabid emails have gotten plenty of employees and executives fired.

I am not immune to getting upset or reacting instantly to situations, however, a majority of the time I have learned to keep it in check. I have fallen victim to the temptation to fire off a scathing email written in the tone of a mad dog eying a mail carrier. There is a difference. I can save it in my drafts, cool off, and either reword my message hit delete. While reacting in such a way professionally can sometimes be therapeutic, such behavior is left best to the recycle bin.

With social media, there is no cooling off period. People Tweet or post their most personal thoughts, feelings and rants as they are feeling them…with what seems to be reckless abandon. While it might also be classified as therapeutic expressing how you feel, the potential for self-destruction is exponentially higher.

Author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s 2011 work, Alone Together (and seemingly hundreds of other books and papers on the subject) takes it a step further. In the book, she argues that technology is threatening to take over our lives to the point where it makes us less human. While social media’s purpose was to allow us to communicate more effectively and rapidly, it’s actually keeping us from experiencing real human interactions in the real world.

I am going to take this thought a step further.

We’ve heard recent reports of people calling emergency numbers because their fast food order was not processed as ordered. Or about parents at a pee wee football game in full out riot mode hitting referees, other parents and even the kids themselves over a blown call. It seems as if our reactionary selves are starting to take hold in the physical world. It can be seen on planes, at Broadway shows, and concerts. In Interviews, lunch meetings, and first dates.

There is a new “norm” in the current our culture that says it’s OK to be “yourself.” However, that’s not a new saying, it’s just the concept of what “yourself” actually is that has changed. Yourself apparently now refers to the “backstage” presentation of yourself, and it’s becoming the norm to assume that people have to take it or leave it, that’s just who you are.

I think to some degree people should be “themselves” where that means the “backstage” self, however there are some circumstances which call for having a bit more self restraint and dignity - such as an interview, or even flying in a plane, where acting restrained, professional, and respectful can also qualify as being “yourself.”

The internet is no different. If people worried more about their online reputation, their integrity when it comes to making sure the information they’re getting is good information, and their contribution to the group, be it in a restaurant, interview, or Broadway show; everyone will have a better experience.