Self-censorship and social media

Everyone has an experience of not saying what’s on their mind. We censor ourselves when we praise a friend’s terrible cooking, and also when we remain silent on matters of social injustice. Some people believe self-censorship to be in itself roughly neutral, having both positive and negative uses. On the other hand, I think it’s usually quite negative and should be exercised sparingly, only where telling the truth would have a harmful consequence, and where the underlying issue is trivial.

A couple of recent studies1 examined how self-censorship manifests itself in social media. The results aren’t very surprising: About 70% of Facebook users censor themselves. (We might imagine that the study’s methods are insufficiently precise to register the remaining users’ tendencies.)

Self-censorship appears most prevalent in cases where the user’s audience is broad or vague. For example, a person may be less likely to share radical political beliefs if they fear that their conservative uncle will stumble upon the post. The studies advocate relieving such worries by allowing users to more precisely target their speech.

It seems a very strange tack, if the goal is to alleviate harmful self-censorship. If self-censorship involves crafting some persona for social approval, this approach only seems to encourage people to construct ever more elaborate personae for the praise of ever narrower circles.

There is an alternative. The studies seem to assume the existence of the audience as a salient fact. When you compose a post, it’s assumed that you’re considering that it will be read by someone or some audience. This assumption seems harmless enough, and it’s probably fair in an environment so saturated by likes, comments, and pictures of your friends. However, there are kinds of social media where the existence of an audience is not very salient.

As I write this, I’m only reminded of an audience by consciously and deliberately thinking of that audience. Their faces aren’t plastered all over the place, and if I’m not preoccupied with my site’s stats, I could plausibly deny to myself that I have any audience at all.

Even if I accept that I have some audience, my audience here would seem to demonstrate some interest in what I have to say, as they must be somewhat more deliberate about finding these words at all. If I wrote this on Facebook, my audience would practically be forced to read what I say. As such, I can feel a bit more comfortable about sharing my actual self here, as it seems something my entirely hypothetical audience (you understand) just might want.

And here lies, as far as I’m concerned, the beauty of weblogs and blogging. The weblog carries with it hardly any more assumptions than paper. You’re completely free to turn it into what you like: A socially aware Facebook analogue, or a plausibly private and only incidentally public notebook. Or anything in between.

It’s part of social and antisocial media alike, and Facebook could learn a thing or two from this.