By Kevin Currie-Knight


What follows is the first part of three essays on the trends of increasing political and cultural polarization as well as our diminishing willingness to tolerate opposing ideas. In a sense, these are an outgrowth of previous thoughts I’ve had about toleration and its conditions. What is toleration? What does it demand from both tolerators and tolerated? What conditions can lead to its decline or its renewal? Not surprisingly, some changes in polarization and declining toleration involve the norms of social media. But what norms specifically? Here, I’ll sketch three norms in the social media age that I think affect our increasingly tense political attitudes toward one another: how we share, how we care, and how we do.

“Good fences make for good neighbors.” The saying is old and quaint, but there is something to it. Fences obscure what neighbors can see of each other. In doing that, they give neighbors more control over what each one shares.

But why do these fences – and this control over sharing – make for good neighborly relations? Because those relations require that we only know things about each other that will be instrumental in maintaining them in a healthy way. When you know that I take care of the lawn and that my kids are roughly the same age as yours, that fosters better neighborly relations. If you also knew that I vote for the tribe you think is politically despicable and have strange sexual peccadillos, that might put the relationship at risk. Arguably, the first two pieces of information are also more relevant to neighborly relations. Living near one another is made more comfortable by knowing that our kids can play together, not by knowing what happens in my bedroom with my partner.

This is “impression management,” the idea that made sociologist Erving Goffman famous. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman presents a dramaturgical theory of social interaction, where we behave around others in ways that best reflect how we’d like them to think about us. Since we may want different people – a romantic interest, colleagues at work, our children – to see us in different ways, we may change the way we present ourselves, depending on whom we are engaging with.

Sharing is a key part of this, but it is a selective sharing that also requires omitting. It isn’t insincere of me to share my sexual fantasies with my lover but not with my colleagues or kids or to accentuate a silly side of myself to my children but not to my lover or colleagues. I am showing different real aspects of myself to different people, and also being aware that other aspects of myself have the potential to distract (or be irrelevant), and that they should be held back.

What should be shared, accentuated, or held back depends on the relationships I have with those with whom I’m interacting. I might disagree with my spouse on politics, but the time we spend together need not have politics brought into it, and bringing it in might ruin our evening. My neighbor may not approve of certain aspects of my lifestyle, but she thankfully has the good sense to know that telling me this will likely solve nothing except making her feel more honest, right before our neighborly relationship implodes.

However, we live in a social media age that promotes a less discriminating ethic of transparency. I like transparency, and think that early optimists around social media got a lot right when they extolled its virtues. Evil and corruption thrive in darkness, especially when mixed with power. As a social species, we are often on our best behavior when others know what we are up to and when we know that they know.

But after fifteen or so years of experience with social media, we might return to asking to what degree being good neighbors requires having good fences. For all the good uses to which transparency can be put, is it less good when it jumps out of those lanes?

We can start by thinking about what is good about the weakening and removal of fences. Social media promised us the enhanced ability to share, and as sharers, we would supposedly receive the benefits of making it easier for others to see our pictures and videos and to hear our thoughts; to have the option of revealing more of ourselves to others. As recipients, we would have much more access to information about others – from public figures to friends we already had and everyone in between – than we’d ever had up to that point.

More information flowing between people can obviously enhance relationships. The more I know about a friend’s past, or current hardships, the better a friend I can be to them and the closer we might become. Also, there are cases where the more I feel I can reveal about myself, the more I am relieved at not having to hide what I previously hid. And the more we all share, the more likely it is that we will find groups of supportive people to share among.

One problem with [in] social media seems less that we share too much, but that we share less discriminately than we did before. Goffman’s impression-management largely depends on being judicious about what one shares with whom based on the context. Different relationships have different purposes that demand sharing [and withholding] different things. Individually, there are myriad things we could share, but each of our relationships serves certain purposes, for which only some of them are apt. My spouse, colleagues, and friends need to know different things about me, and while all of those things overlap on a Venn Diagram, most of what I share with one does not overlap what I share with others.

All of this, however, is based on a certain sensitivity to context and the discrimination that follows. What I share with whom should be based on a consideration of what information those I’m sharing with need or don’t need for the purposes of our relationship. This type of sensitivity to context is what I see less and less of on social media today, which makes sense, as social media thrives by depriving what we share of the context that bounds physical interaction.

We can take the example of teen girls’ mental health using image sharing apps like Instagram. At its root seems to be the fact that girls are sharing [and feel pressure to share] an increasing number of images of themselves. Commenters then share evaluative comments on those images. [These girls and women are also seeing an increasing number of others’ images, which they can compare with their own and increase the felt pressure to share alike.]

I’m 45 and male, so maybe I’m getting this wrong, but I can only imagine that if teen girls during my childhood were asked if they wanted the opportunity to take and share lots of pictures of themselves, to be commented on by friends, acquaintances, and strangers, most of them would not have been excited by the prospect. Quite a few would have found it gross. Yes, teens during my childhood wanted to impress others, and we certainly engaged in Goffman-style impression-management. But probably because we didn’t have access to social media, a great majority of our time was spent in situations where we weren’t sharing at all or were sharing with a group of people limited by physical proximity. Without those limitations, one can – and increasingly think that one should – share with a wider audience, and, of course, the wider audience readily shares what it thinks of what you shared.

I only used the example of teen girls and Instagram because it has been in the media of late. But obviously, this widened sense of sharing affects other groups as well. I’ve written recently about two such cases of sharing gone wild. One case was of an assistant football coach who was fired from his job after tweeting some snide things – including “fat” jokes – about then-mayoral candidate Stacey Abrams. A second case I wrote about occurred the day after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of killing two people during an antiracist protest in Kenosha, WI. Opinions were heated, and people spent several days on social media engaging in debate over whether the verdict was justified. [That’s saying it politely.]

In these cases, too, we share and share and share when it defies contextual sense. When telling fat jokes about mayoral candidates [who may or may not have recently lost a recent race owing to racist voting laws], one should exercise care in who one tells the jokes to. One might even keep in mind that certain relationships could be jeopardized if the joke finds its way into them. This is especially so when discussing the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, first because it is a quite heated issue, and second because our opinions on it have no bearing on the outcome of the case, which has already been decided by a governmental branch set up not to be responsive to public discourse. Surely there is expressive value in sharing one’s beliefs with others, but this ideally should be balanced by thinking about with whom and under what context these things should be shared.

Your neighbor knows you as the person who lives next door, whose kids are around the same age, and who has a well-manicured yard. Your colleagues know you as the person down the hall who bangs out killer spreadsheets and is great fun at holiday parties. Your spouse, kids, and friends know yet different angles of you. Only some of these people need to know or even care about your political convictions. Impression-management has generally been about what to share and what to keep close to the vest depending on the context.

Your boss used to think you a model employee until you made a fat joke about the mayoral candidate she voted for whose candidacy she thinks was torpedoed by racist voting laws. Now “racist” is what she sees. Your neighbor used to say “Hello” to you and loved it when his kids hung out with yours, until he learned through social media that you and your spouse are swingers who are unmarried by choice. Now he thinks you are morally loose and maybe something even worse. Your extended family used to have amazing if occasional family dinners, but these have become tense ever since you learned of your differing opinions on the exoneration of Kyle Rittenhouse. In each case, indiscriminate sharing took an “us” and needlessly broke it into conflicting “thems.”

I’m not against sharing or the social media industry that trades in our willingness to do it. But sharing should be approached with more caution than we often give. Once you share, you invite others to – and this is the next essay – care about what you shared and possibly change their view of you in response to it. Maybe it will bring you and them closer together. Maybe it will drive you further apart. Maybe it will enhance your reputation. Maybe it will tarnish it. But it will have an effect. And for that reason, you might want to tighten up your impression-management.


11 responses to “Sharing”

  1. jofrclark

    Interesting and timely.

    I think the point of context is important, especially the idea of physical vs. virtual relationships.

    The examples of spouse, children, neighbor, and workmate (assuming in office) all share a physical proximity that is unavoidable. They each by the nature have built into them regular ongoing physical contact and thus one must be more cognizant of consequences, of how what is said will affect future interactions. This will tend to motivate us to “keep the peace” and tend to the fences.

    Social media largely uncouples shared content from physical proximity and ongoing relations thus uncoupling shared information from any relational consequences. Thus the fences break down (or are lost altogether), and let loose are the internet trolls and the Alex Jones of the world. A pervasive social ethic of individualism only fuels unfettered individual “expression” and thus social division, and the collective ethic of cooperation and the general welfare that physical proximity encourages is further eroded.

    As we’re seeing with the Alex Jones case, society is exploring how to attach real-world consequences to (social) media relations in the absence of real-world ongoing physical relationships.

  2. I like this post and am looking forward to the next.

    I’m roughly your age (48). In my late 20s through, I guess, a couple years ago, I used to believe in what I might have once called “radical sharing” and what I now probably would call “oversharing.”

    In some ways, that was a good thing for me to engage in, because I was too closed off and insular. I also think there’s an argument to be made for disclosing one’s biases in the name of honestly placing oneself so that others can more knowledgeably critique what I say.,

    I now think I took it too far and am trying to rein it in. (However, maybe not enough. Perhaps this very comment is oversharing!) But it is sometimes hard to find the balance.

  3. I agree with this to some extent, but feel it looks to a particular time and place for the better norm for behaviour (your and my youth in communities of a certain size). Going further back to small villages, universal surveillance, gossip and backbiting are extremely common. And it’s not like political and sectarian division in, say, the US now is not different from that seen elsewhere in the world now, and in the US historically. In the case of labor versus owners, or black versus white, it was more that one group was successfully suppressed and dropped from a national narrative.

    Specifically on technology, it is the current “platforms” amplifying this longstanding human characteristic in a negative fashion. But many people who partook in the online life of just 15 years ago have only positive memories, describing those small self-selected villages as infinitely more supportive than their real life family, school or work. My own lurking experience is of pre-Eternal-September Usenet, which definitely had trolling, spamming, flame wars but was still markedly pleasant. Trolls aspired to be amusing (like the ones in Homestuck), and could easily be ignored.

  4. I tend to think that in the past people didn’t care so much about political views. I think it has always been a rare event that some boss fires someone because they found out they made a snide fat comment about trump (or some other political figure) if this was 1985. Sure one kid might say they liked Dukakis and other kids might make fun of him but the adults in the room – teachers – would tend to make a point that people are entitled to have and express their opinions.

    Do you consider blogging social media? I always thought Twitter was always a horrible platform so I never bothered with it. I never understood why anyone would bother with it because you can never actual say much of substance. But that is twitter. I have learned substantial information about the rittenhouse case from YouTube which I consider social media.

    In the past there were always people interested in political and religious debates that would give their opinion on everything to anyone that would listen. And sure they would use derogatory comments about people they didn’t like. Sure some neighbors or coworkers didn’t like them for it but I don’t think many would think they should be fired for their views. I mean unless they were always talking about politics when they should be working.

    I think the fences make good neighbors thing works for a different reason. It defines what ground people can walk on. And in the past adult people thought saying your views was your own turf to tread on. Firing people due to someone making fun of a politician was really a boss going over his or her own fence. I’m not saying you shouldn’t legally be able to fire someone for having different political views. It’s a free country – but that does violate the social norms that people in civil society play by. I can’t imagine most people would think it’s ok to fire someone because they made a snide comment about a politician. But perhaps America is becoming less tolerant of those they disagree with. If so I think the trend will naturally start to shift back toward a more tolerant view. People will realize that being able to express yourself is freely about politics is an important cultural value.

  5. Matti Meikäläinen

    This is an interesting beginning. I’m seriously wondering whether you are ultimately just tapping your way to some arguments about proper etiquette, i.e., polite social behaviors, in our social media age or whether you intend to conclude with some ethical arguments about the proper role of tolerance as a moral virtue in support of our political institutions. Or perhaps I’m missing your direction altogether in my desire to read what interests me.

  6. When I was growing up, it seemed understood in my family, and especially by my parents, that it was impolite to talk politics in certain circumstances, such as in restaurants or at family get togethers or with strangers/acquaintances.

    They sometimes honored that understanding in the breach, especially in family get togethers, and some people (and types of people) were presumed to hold certain views and therefore preemptively left out of that fellowship.

    But the norm was there., and in my opinion. In my opinion, it was based on the need to respect others’ privacy and their status as fellow citizens who each got their own vote.

    Of course, there were bad things about that norm. Sometimes things need to be discussed. Sometimes silence reinforces something bad that needs to be pointed out.

    I agree with you about Twitter, too. One of the many things that irks me is “how” news outlets cite what someone says on Twitter. They don’t simply quote what the person said. They show the little box with the branded Twitter/blue bird logo and the person’s gravatar. I’m not sure why it irks me, and there are worse things about Twitter.

  7. Animal Symbolicum

    I can’t help but take pleasure in your meditation here, Kevin. But I also can’t help feeling that I’m admiring your dance along the crust while a molten hellscape gurgles underneath.

    We find ourselves in a certain cultural arrangement that no one of us had any say in bringing about. This is an arrangement in which the conditions for love and friendship — our embodiment and co-locatedness — are explicitly denigrated, an arrangement in which its enactors — tech monopolies — nevertheless dress up their profit motive with bromides about connecting people, an arrangement in which these monopolies make their money by carefully setting things up to reward the intemperateness and indiscretion each one of us possesses in some measure, an arrangement that makes it almost impossible to opt out of.

    And you’re asking us to beware the deliberate absence of fences and be cautious about sharing.

    I can’t say you’re wrong, exactly, just like I can’t say the doctor is wrong to suggest how one might better manage the symptoms of a genetic disorder. And I’m certainly not going to fault your essay for failing to say everything about the topic. I suppose I’m just calling for some reflection on the value of so meticulously managing the symptoms.

  8. I think you’ve diagnosed the sickness (the “uncoupling of shared content from physical proximity and ongoing relations”) properly, but misidentified the carrier and the consequences. Concern with the Alex Jones case

    The cause is the constant deluge of information about far-off goings on. Apart from the occasional message from family, it’s not natural for people to be concerned about what’s going on more than a few day’s ride or walk away. It makes diffuse the collective ethics of cooperation, and lends itself to costless performative virtue. Easier for a New Yorker to wave a sign on behalf of a Uyghur than knock on doors for the would-be county mayor, or boycott Israel instead of putting a stone through a scab’s windshield. Solidarity and hope are reduced to self-parody.

    We need to rebuild social division geographically. People are best at improving things close by, and knowing what needs improving. Unfettered individualism and social division are symptoms of the sickness. Humanity writ large is not a society, let alone a community. Put your neighborhood, family, and city first, and maybe you’ll feel like part of something bigger. The welfare of your locale is part of the world’s welfare, and the part you can do the most about, except…

    Self improvement. You’re part of the community. Improve yourself, and you improve the community. Prowess, beauty, and fitness are all good. A personable friend to shoot hoops with, a scoutmaster teaching kids to camp, or a schoolgirl putting her all into clarinet chasing that scholarship do far more for a neighborhood than a conscientious news-junkie or devout activist for the identitarian cause of the day.

    We need to go back, but most won’t. Streaming videos, internet news, and cell phones are popular for a reason. Distraction has its place, but it’s not a legitimate way of life. The EA crowd has a lot of this going on. Buying 20 Malaria nets for strangers a continent away is less virtuous than playing catch with your kids or baking a pie with grandma, and no matter how they pretend otherwise they know it too.

  9. KuremaSan

    There is much to be said for seeing life primarily in local terms; for seeing one’s personal situation as dictating to a large extent one’s actual duties and responsibilities; for resisting temptations to moralize and pontificate. Social media have exploited unfortunate human tendencies and facilitated the drift away from real connections and real communities. I agree with you on this (rather than with Kevin Currie-Knight who takes, I think, too soft a line on the “social media industry”).

    There is one area, however, in which long-distance concerns impinge on us in a serious and urgent way: foreign policy. This applies especially for citizens of countries (like the US and its close allies) which project military power on a global basis.

    Advocating for an anti-interventionist (or less interventionist) foreign policy goes well beyond local concerns but is quite consistent, I think, with the general point of view you are putting.

  10. […] of shared content from physical proximity and ongoing relations” was recently a topic of discussion at The Electric Agora. One participant lamented the current situation, seeing “the constant […]

  11. […] sharing – about which I wrote last time – caring is generally framed as an almost unqualified virtue. To advocate that we care less […]