Mar 20, 09:13 PM

I originally posted this on my teacher blog, but I think it’s important, so I’m putting it here, too.

My sister confessed to me recently that she can’t listen to NPR anymore because every time she turns it on, it just makes her angry. The straw that broke her back was a story about a recent police operation wherein police built cases against people by collecting evidence from their social media profiles to ultimately charge them with gang-related crimes. The real kicker is that, the way the law is written, one doesn’t even need to have committed any criminal acts—mere evidence that one is “in” a particular gang is enough to garner a slew of “conspiracy to…” charges. The upshot was that a bunch of young men1 had their lives torn apart because they were trying to look hard and throw shade on Facebook and Instagram.

Now, I have no doubt that some of these dudes were legitimate trouble, but this is totally beside the point. I have no problem with law enforcement using social media to look for leads—this is more or less public information that people have intentionally shared with the world. But using this material as evidence is ridiculous. We all, consciously or unconsciously, present an inaccurate picture of ourselves through social media. The degree to which we misrepresent ourselves varies wildly, from the unavoidable omission of life’s details to the intentional construction of a wildly different online persona. In teenagers this desire is particularly strong, and tends to manifest itself in a desire to appear older or more mature, to present an exaggerated amount of authority flouting, to appear tougher, harder, more dangerous. It falls somewhere between naïvely irresponsible and deliberately malicious to use this information as actual criminal evidence of illegal activity.

As terrible as this situation is, I’m sure I don’t have anything to add that the NPR piece didn’t already add, but it did get me thinking about the state of “onlineness” today, how different it is than when I was young, and one particular modern challenge that, I think, tends to hit developing young people the hardest.

My introduction to the concept of “being online” was dialing in to pre-Web bulletin boards in the early ‘90s. These tended to be small communities of local people2 that you may or may not have ever ended up meeting in person, but in any case would probably never have been any part of your real, meatspace life. Even after the Web showed up and brought virtual connection to the masses, online social communities tended to be nucleated around a particular topic, like a forum for model railroad enthusiasts or a mailing list for Lisp fans. Again, most interaction was driven by and centered around a shared interest, and purely social hobnobbing was peripheral. In these types of environments, “reinventing” oneself, or at least presenting a particular constructed image (cooler, tougher, somehow more interesting or desirable) of oneself was simple and relatively consequence-free (at least as far as real-life consequences went—obviously one’s behavior still had an effect in the given online community).

Several “general-purpose” social networks shambled and bit the dust (before the idea of “social network” or “social media” was even a thing)3, but it was when Facebook finally started allowing anyone to join that the nature of online interaction really began to change. I would say that right now, the majority of the “average” computer (or mobile phone) user’s online interaction4 is through Facebook (or maybe Instagram, or something similar, for which this issue is still…an issue). The relevant difference that separates this new norm of online interaction from the forum-BBS-newsgroup model of old5 is that your core Facebook “friends” are people who play a part in your real (offline, meatspace) life: friends, family, coworkers, that guy from the gym or chick from the coffee shop. Our online lives have been inextricably intertwined with our real ones; what we say and show online has real consequences—that is, consequences in meatspace—now.

This fundamentally changes the nature of the game; it has many rammifications, and here’s one: The things that most people say and show via social media potentially have a much greater reach than anything they could possibly do or say in real life. Lots of people have 400 Facebook “friends” or upwards of 1,000 Instagram followers; there’s no way any of them could ever get 400 people to pay attention to them in real life. And the people who pay the most attention on Facebook are people they actually know: people whose reactions to what they say and do online will come back to affect them in reality.

When saying something or posting an image or sharing an article on social media, much of the time one is alone with a computer or, even if near people, not really interacting with any of them, so one is (and this is important) psychologically alone.6 The fact that no one is (or seems) physically around to witness your utterings changes what you are willing to say—you’re less reserved and cautious than you would be if you felt like you had an actual, physical audience.7 Coupled with the reach of social media, this is particularly dangerous—and even moreseo for adolescents, who haven’t necessarily acquired the experience to make reasonable choices under normally mediated social circumstances.

This is a challenge that my generation didn’t face, and something that we need to keep in mind when addressing behavior and social choices with young people.

  1. Alice didn’t say, but I’m assuming it was mostly black (or possibly latino, almost certainly not white) teenagers. [return]
  2. Dialing long distance would have been costly. [return]
  3. Friendster, anyone? [return]
  4. Not counting work email, which is a different kind of beast, and not really “social”. [return]
  5. Haha, “of old”. Get a load of me. [return]
  6. One might be said to be “lonely, but not alone”. [return]