The consequences of communication via social media continue to be met with ambiguity, from accusations that it is making us cruel, to fears that it will have unknown impacts on generations to come. People are unsure about whether social media is good or bad for us.
Following the protests in Sydney's CBD, the Sydney Morning Herald Sun noted the use of Facebook to 'rally the protesters' and generate debate in the aftermath. Some have wondered if this use of social media is a troubling sign of the power that lies online - power that can be harnessed by anyone, to say and do whatever they want.
Critchley (for the The Herald Sun) shared concerns that social media might be bringing out the worst in us. Critchley reported that social media was exposed at its worst when people began tweeting about the tragic death of AFL footballer John McCarthy before his family had been properly informed. Etiquette expert Anna Musson commented that the incident 'reflected an increasing me-first attitude showing no respect for others. She said, ‘The anonymity of social media allows for outrageous behaviour to go unchecked. This is too much power for some to resist'.
In the case of the tweets surrounding John McCarthy's death, Psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg suggests one particular rule for online communication: that 'tweeters' should respect the right of authorities to inform relatives first after a death. Carr-Greg suggests that the type of behaviour we saw online in this instance is an indication that 'the general public needs to learn delayed gratification'.
The problem is that instant gratification is not, strictly speaking, an experience unique to online communication, but a consequence of living in the twenty-first century - where 'I want it now' is coupled with instant credit. Tweets or updates are satisfied with re-tweets and likes before they become yesterday’s news.
My point is that we drag our offline experiences into online spaces. We enter online spaces with all our learned behaviours (needs, wants, desires) and learned rules for appropriate interaction. So if there is a problem online, it’s likely that there is problem offline too. As communications scholar Sarah Joesph says: 'Social media platforms are neutral tools....It depends on the values people bring to the table'. So was social media at its worst or were we?
Communication online has particular properties. Online spaces offer the conditions for global, instant, anonymous, rehearsed communication. Consequences for communication online are different too: social faux pas are magnified and locked in time for all to see. Given that what we say and do online spreads far and wide and is part of an ever growing digital archive, Carr-Gregg calls for higher levels of responsibility where by Twitter and Facebook play a role in actively removing offensive material. The next question is, of course, who decides what is offensive or inappropriate?
With the parameters and possibilities for communication online up for grabs, debates about how these spaces should be regulated for the greater good have once again opened up. How much freedom of speech is too much? Should there be rules and regulations in this space? What rules should be followed? And can these rules be enforced?
Social media is a place where things can be said and done, things that are not possible in the same way in offline spaces. This is a space in which we need to practice greater responsibility, before the possibilities for communication become limited through greater regulation.