Talking and Not Talking in the Age of Social Media

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Not everything you want to say is worth saying, especially to large audiences. To see this, imagine that the year is 1982. A football assistant coach doesn’t know it yet, but he will be fired from his job for making ill-advised political comments. After the team’s recent game, this fictitious coach held a press conference and after talking about the game, the health of the players, and all the obligatory football stuff, he carved time out of the press conference to voice his frustration with a recent election that he believes was fixed.

Congratulations to the Governor and to Fat Albert [a reference to a “plus-size” state congressperson the coach thinks was in on the fixed election], because you’ve really shown America how to cheat in an election! Enjoy the buffet Big Man! You earned it! And by the way, you aren’t MY governor!”

Imagine that you saw this tirade on tv. You’d be excused for thinking the coach made a serious blunder. You’re a football coach. Keep press conferences about football, and air your private grievances among your friends. Keep these things separate!

Astute readers may already be wise to where I’m going. This scenario really did happen, but (a) it was in 2021, and (b) the statement wasn’t made in a press conference, but in a tweet by an assistant football coach who lost his job as a result. Here was the tweet that the UT Chattanooga Assistant football Coach put out, alluding to the state’s vote tallies in the 2020 presidential election:

Congratulations to the state [of] GA and Fat Albert @staceyabrams  because you have truly shown America the true works of cheating in an election [sic], again!!! Enjoy the buffet Big Girl! You earned it!!! Hope the money was good, still not governor!”

Why is an assistant football coach broadcasting this juvenile take on the 2020 presidential election (and Stacy Abrams’ size) to the world? Why not just say it to friends over some beers or maybe your significant other? Or why not just think it to yourself, but not actually say it?

The answer is that this is the age of social media, and social media sites are where we voice our opinions these days. Saying things in a room full of friends or to your significant other is something people did in an earlier age. Now, we have a right – and apparently, a duty – to voice all of our views on social media sites in ways that have the widest possible reach. And we voice them in as raw a form as we initially thought them. Think and then broadcast, making sure to spend as little time in between. Anything less feels like censorship.

I want to be clear. The assistant coach has the right to make statements about an election he thinks is unfair or fat jokes about Stacy Abrams if he likes. Indeed, we all have the right to express our views as far and wide as we’d like. I’m not saying we should have those rights curtailed. I just wonder whether the availability of social media has clouded our judgment about what opinions we should be sharing with large audiences and when it is reasonable to expect things to go wrong after we’ve done so.

Marshall McLuhan made a career out of analyzing our symbiotic relationship with media. We not only affect media by using it, but media affects us. Writing makes it possible to store thoughts somewhere other than in our memories. Recordings, radio and tv made it possible to broadcast – and for others to experience – sounds and moving images somewhere not in close temporal or spatial proximity to where the sounds and images originated. The internet allows us to explore anything that is on the web in a “content on demand” sort of way. And since each of these technologies expands what is possible for us to do, we get used to being able to do those things. We now expect that we can use the internet to explore whenever we want, and not being able to do so begins to feel like a burden.

Before social media, there were options for interpersonal communication but they – at least the ones accessible to those of us who weren’t journalists, authors, Andy Rooney, etc. – were limited in scope. You could talk to others who are in physical proximity to you, write people letters, talk to people on the phone, etc. In each case, though, the reach of your thought was limited to the relatively small number of people to whom you were talking. You could, if you really wanted, try to write a letter to the editor or give a speech at a public venue if you wanted to expand the reach of your thought, but likely, you would only do this if you thought what you had to say was be important enough to share with a large group of others.

Our 1982 football coach may have fervently believed the recent election was unjust, but he had only those options. He could talk to like-minded friends or maybe his significant other. He could stew privately but decide that it wasn’t worth going through the time, effort or risk of telling others about his thoughts or his fat joke. Or, if he felt strongly enough – and he probably didn’t – he could write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper and hope that his message would appear there (almost certainly sans fat joke). But all this was probably fine with him, as it didn’t occur to him that there might be other options. Broadcasting any thought you had at the moment to thousands or millions of people wasn’t possible yet. So, he was fine with the media and the reach that he had.

But the very real (former) assistant football coach of UT Chattanooga doesn’t live in 1982. He lives in 2021. And at least some part of his life is conditioned by social media and the options it provides us for expression. He lives in a world where talking with friends means talking through social media, and unless your account is deliberately set to be private (a process that takes ten deliberate steps on Twitter), this involves broadcasting your thoughts publicly and in writing.

I am guessing that if I told our very real former coach that it was folly for him to Tweet what he did, he’d either say that I’m advocating censorship or trying to shame him into censoring himself. But, I am not arguing that he has no right to broadcast his thoughts and create a permanent record in cyberspace, but only that having this right doesn’t mean one exercise it or fail to take care in exercising it. People should have the right to use drugs and abort unwanted pregnancies, and this is entirely consistent with the view that these rights should be exercised with care.

With regard to the idea that “be careful in what and how you tweet” advocates an impermissible form of self-censorship, I doubt that the 1982 coach would agree. If I were to tell him that not every political opinion you have is worth writing potentially incendiary letters to the editor about, I doubt he’d do anything but shrug. In 1982, no one thought it was a significant imposition not to be able to broadcast all of our opinions in venues with audiences thousands or millions strong. The fact that we can do this now has led us to think that we should and not to settle for less.

Social media is a wonderful tool for giving everyone an amplified voice. But voices should be used with care. The more I say just for the sake of blowing off steam, the less likely anyone will listen and the more likely I am to say something to turn others away. Some thoughts, to be sure, should be aired. Others are probably better left in my head. Still others should occupy a middle ground, shared amongst a small group of friends I trust rather than being broadcast to the world. But I am probably just saying what everyone would have thought obvious in 1982.

8 comments

  1. You have pretty much explained why I never did sign up for Twitter or for Facebook.

    Sure, I have lots of opinions. But most of them are best kept to myself or shared only with a few close friends. And if I do want to share an idea more broadly, then I need to first think carefully about it.

    Well, okay, that’s only part of why I never signed up for social media. The other part, is that I have better things to do than spend time listening to poorly considered opinions of other people.

  2. Is “media” singular?

    > We not only affect media by using it, but media affects us.

    I think this should be “We not only affect media by using them, but media affect us.”

    1. bmeacham,
      “Media” is the plural of “medium,” but in casual usage, singular “media” (as in “media is”) is acceptable, especially in an era when we are surrounded by media sharing much the same messaging and eliciting much the same responses.

  3. My own concern here, as I indicated in comment to a previous article, is that asking us to ‘please, monitor your own messaging on social media,’ is simply too late and not enough. I fear we may need more aggressive regulation of the internet than anyone would wish, including myself. The slogan of the Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But the far right doesn’t need darkness, just the proliferation of repetitive self-reinforcing memes. (‘Oh, and did you hear what the assistant football coach of UT Chattanooga said? It must be true!’) Democracy dies when the light is so refracted, it looks like darkness (‘how many fingers, 4 or 5?’).

  4. Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.

    The Kotzker Rebbe

    1. I don’t think this assistant coach should have been fired because he had a non-PC opinion, but if I were an employer and if he were my employee, I would have fired him for monumental stupidity.
      If you don’t understand that using twitter, social media etc. is more or less the same as shouting your opinions through a bullhorn in the middle of a crowd, you’re an idiot.

      If you don’t understand the basics of social media, you’re an idiot. And who wants an idiot in his or her organization?

  5. There’s a sense in which technology, including today’s smart technology and internet technology, has exhibited a mind-numbing sameness for generations.

    Every new piece of technology promises freedom from something. From what? In a word: burden. Sometimes the burden is real and keeps us from being safe or healthy (lacking access to clean drinking water, e.g.). Most of the time, though, the burden only comes to be seen as such once a new technology is on the scene. Just compare how burdensome fireplaces seemed before and after the advent of central heating, how burdensome getting up to change the television channel seemed before and after the advent of remote controls, and, of course, how burdensome showing some judiciousness in your opinion-sharing seemed before and after the advent of social media. (You can think of your own examples; they multiply.)

    Chopping and stacking wood or spending some cold minutes getting the fire going might have been perceived as difficult, but not burdensome. But even if such things (only now) appear burdensome, it is worth having a good-faith discussion about what it might be that makes engaging in such (purportedly) burdensome activities a bad thing, or, to come at it a little differently, about what it is that might be lost by trying to maximize burdenlessness.

  6. I totally and completely agree with this piece. Some people these days seem to have a backward-kant view that ‘can implies ought’, and as what people *can* do has widened immensely, and deference to cognitive and social authority has declined, this manifests in millions of people shouting or amplifying ill-informed or malign BS.

    Separately but kind-of relatedly: during the aftermath of the November US elections lots of people (mostly GOP legislators etc.) said stuff like ‘The president has a perfect right to challenge election outcomes in the courts’. This statement is of course true. The president also has a perfect right to dress up like big bird from sesame street and run down Pennsylvania Avenue singing ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor’. The fact that a person has a perfect right to do something does not mean that it is either a) appropriate or b) a good idea.

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