The Crippling, Imaginary Audience
When I was younger I had multiple websites where I posted often. I didn’t care what I wrote because I was just writing for my friends. Doing this improved my writing dramatically. It forced me to focus on who my audience was, have a goal in writing (always write to persuade!), and to write for actual consumption. People I knew actually read my site! Having any audience at all was just fun.
But then I got fired for talking shit about my boss. One of my coworkers who didn’t like me ratted me out. I was nineteen years old and a complete dumbass. The public nature of the internet was just starting to rear its ugly head and I was one of a number of people who were getting fired for confusing their personal websites for a secluded corner of the internet. This appears to be a difficult lesson to learn, as this still happens constantly to people on Twitter well over a decade later.
Sometimes twitter is like that downstairs storage room in a horror movie from which odd sounds emerge. Best to walk right past it. Don’t touch the door. Whatever’s going on in there, let it play out.— walter kirn (@walterkirn) August 6, 2019
The public nature of the internet is a hard thing to wrap your head around. Humans weren’t built to appreciate this kind of scale. People constantly post things that are inflammatory, offensive, disrespectful, off-color, wrong-headed, problematic, bad jokes, and more. To their friends, who appreciate the human at the core of it, these posts are just one aspect of a person who contains multitudes. But this melts away once you get to the first person who hasn’t met them. Suddenly, you have actor-observer bias running rampant.
Cast a wide enough net, and you are stripped of your humanity. You become infamous, an overnight celebrity with all the scrutiny that comes with it.
It’s a terrifying potential.
Recently, a number of thoughtful articles have been written on what is now a big enough problem to be called ‘cancel culture’:
- Monica Lewinsky on the Culture of Humiliation
- How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life
- The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture
- Everyone Is Canceled
- Shame Storm
The mob wants justice and it wants public executions. You’re a seventeen year-old kid? Too bad, you are a monster now. The President and you had a tryst? Sorry, you’re a slut and the butt of jokes for life. The human desire for blood-lust hasn’t abated, it has just changed form.
"Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it." this is .. deeply true. Originally tweeted by @maplecocaine who, er, apparently deleted their account..?— Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror) April 8, 2019
So why post at all? Why voice any opinions in such a dangerous environment?
I still have a lot of difficulty with this. For now at least, the lesson might be that you shouldn’t touch anything that is controversial unless you have some very well defined thoughts on the subject. If you haven’t done your research and you haven’t debated someone knowledgeable, leave it alone. As soon as you put words to paper, you are inviting people to pick it apart. This is not you and your friends around a beer.
Perhaps this isn’t a bad lesson. We are not all journalists and comedians. We are not prepared for the responsibility and weight of our words. For many of us, perhaps only managers, teachers, and our parents have read our writing. And now you want the whole internet to respond?
Unless you really want to enter the arena, maybe best to leave it to someone else.