Social Media to America: What line between personal and public life?

Josh Clark

TechCrunch ran an op-ed piece a couple weeks ago (thanks for the link, LOML) prognosticating that the relentless push of social media will soon be accountable for erasure of the line between business reputation and real life reputation. The bottom line, says the article's author, Michael Arrington, is that reputation is dead. In the near future, there will be nothing but reality.

And is that such a bad thing? How horrible is reality? The guy who is ever chipper when you see him in the break room weekday mornings has been drunk at a wedding before. You know this because you've seen photos of him in suspenders, cigar dangling inexpertly between clenched teeth and all. Your girlfriend was once spanked by her best friend at a party. You know this because you've seen photographic evidence, and she sure seemed to think it was hilarious. Your buddy once had a dog that didn't get along well on gin. You know because you've seen the video on YouTube. It's all there and you know it because you've seen it, and you can't unsee it.

We form and maintain relationships with others based on information. Yet, we also commonly deceive by massaging others' impressions of us. Public life has developed toward a median skewed largely in one direction toward people who are easily moved to write angry letters. As a result, there are certain standards that all of us are expected to follow. Drunkenness, debauchery -- rarely do these pursuits dovetail with the world fueled by advertising dollars and voter confidence and understandably so. These are the guidelines we've all collectively bought into.

The problem is that this socially-prescribed deceptiveness has become such a leviathan in American culture, that it's edged out the reality of what we do when we're not at work. The masquerade has come to substantiate itself so much that we actually are surprised when we learn a coworker was drunk at a wedding last weekend. We forgot the people we interact with as much or more than our families are human beings.

No more, says, Arrington. Current social folkways have met their match in social media. Google announcing that it would expand its search engines to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds was the death knell for the line that divided the person from the person he presents himself as. It's an incredibly large transition, taking place over a relatively minute period of time for such radical social change. But, when examined, we may even have stand to gain from the loss of this compartmentalization.

There's a concept in psychology called opponent-process theory that posits emotions come in polar opposites, one of which can emerge at time. When one is suppressed, the other thrives. Originally a pair of shrinks studied skydivers and found that as fear abated, thrill was allowed to grow. Extrapolated onto sociology (as seems appropriate these days), the theory describes why people like fallen minster Ted Haggard and anti-gay crusader turned just-gay senator Roy Ashburn were allowed to develop alter egos.

By suppressing what they didn't feel they were allowed to be (gay meth addict/gay, respectively), the polar opposites of these men's realities were allowed to thrive. This set both (and myriad others) for an enormous downfall. Certainly, Haggard wouldn't have risen to prominence as a preacher and Ashburn may not have been elected, but both would have been living their honest lives, for better or worse. What's more, had Ashburn been elected as a gay senator, he may have been a champion, rather than an opponent, for gay rights. Had Haggard been a gay minister, he may have counseled gay Christians. And, ultimately, Haggard's meth addiction may have been thwarted or treated, had he felt he could be honest about his hunger for twack. It's this kind of compartmentalization that's kept pedophile clergy in their frocks and pederast Boy Scout leaders in charge of troops.

This movement Arrington describes feels inevitable. It is true, the angry letter-writers will be upset that they will no longer get the redress they demand. They can just join everybody else and post their rants on Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates instead. As their voices are drowned in the larger cacophony, perhaps the median for expectations of public life will slide toward a more realistic center.

Hey check out SYSK on Facebook and Twitter. What's the hold up?