Social media have democratized publishing. Now, anybody can spontaneously share with the world their thoughts, opinions, photos, witticisms and criticisms, as well as what they ate for breakfast or how many times their dog has pooped in a day.
This accessibility has permitted new voices to emerge, quiet voices to be heard and the previously unspoken to be said.
It has also enabled the proliferation of untold amounts of triviality and inanity, not to mention thoughtlessness and bad taste.
It places a huge burden of responsibility on individuals. Whether somebody posts inappropriate information or is caught in an act of misjudgment, no thought, word or deed within the sphere goes uncensured in this open, public realm. The recent election campaign, with multiple online gaffs, current and past, prompting resignations and apologies from multiple candidates, demonstrated how these media magnify incidents and trigger far-reaching fallout.
The responsibility requires constant exercise of the brain’s executive-function skills, including judgment and emotional regulation.
As a species, we’re ill-equipped to deal with today’s pace of communication. Human brains take longer than the rest of our bodies to mature, with the frontal lobe — central command for judgment, reasoning and so on — coming fully online only in our mid-20s. This means that, for 10 or so adolescent years, we are at risk of acting on hormone-driven, split-second reactions with limited chance of our own better judgment intervening. The precarious period lasts longer in some people.
Our frontal cortex develops at a speed best suited to earlier forms of publishing, when widespread sharing of thoughts, viewpoints and accounts of experiences required significant investments of time, energy, intention and, in some cases, wealth.
Think of the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, for example. These pictures of horses, bison, antelope and other animals date from 17,000 years ago — a few years before my time, and long before Mark Zuckerberg had his Brilliant Idea. The paintings of that long-ago Stone Age era are among the earliest representations meant to share meaning with other people. We have no idea what the paintings mean, but they clearly were significant to their creators and their peoples.
The paintings are deep underground, far from the nearest sources of daylight. Their creators had to plan and prepare to make them. The painters had to find, prepare and pack in minerals for the red, orange and yellow pigments. They had to carry in wood and torches for light to paint by and charcoal to paint with. Creating these ancient works took deliberate effort and intention. Nobody was going to go through all that work to snark pettily about so-and-so or document their bowel movements.
The pictographs at Cape Mudge or in East Sooke Park required time and patience for First Nations peoples to produce. No hasty reactions or inane accounts would likely last through the effort needed to carve into rock.
When writing became widespread, so did publication of trivial observations. Walls within 2,000-year-old Pompeii preserve graffiti that would be considered slanderous or obscene today, but the graffiti — while it has enjoyed an unexpectedly long shelf life — had limited legs during its heyday. First-century technology kept it local and contained.
Even when movable-type printing came along, access to presses and the time required to set type enforced delays between thinking a thought and publishing it. As well, for years, few people had cash to spare to finance the printing of insults or personal minutiae.
Exceptions exist, of course — tracts replete with lies and libel were published in the media of their day throughout time, but even they were deliberate and planned attempts to discredit others, not off-hand remarks shared by hitting Reply All and Send in too-quick succession. Diarists documented their daily lives and gossiped about others, but most such accounts waited generations before they became widely circulated. Today, these accounts are valued for the insights they provide into earlier private lives and thinking.
Now, we go from having a thought to publishing it in moments. With that comes the responsibility to think before we hit “publish,” “post” or “send.” Is it appropriate to share this opinion? Is this information libelous or bullying?
It’s safe enough to share your breakfast menu or your dog’s antics. Although I might not care about either, in 200 years, somebody might consider the information priceless.