In Iran, social media platforms played a role in protests in 2009.

Discussion Summary

“Do Social Media Platforms Promote or Limit Individual Liberty?”

By Timothy B. Lee

My initial essay focused on the relationship of social media to a political conception of liberty—that is, freedom from undue government coercion. Freedom of speech is a particularly important aspect of individual liberty in this context, since the Internet has the potential to greatly enhance individuals' ability to share their ideas with the world.

Yet commenter OneManGang helpfully drew my attention to the fact that there are other ways to think about liberty. For example, John Stuart Mill wrote about liberty as freedom not only from coercion by government but also from the constraints of social conventions. Related to this is employees' freedom to live their personal lives as they see fit without facing potential repercussions in the workplace.

Social media can have a real impact on this kind of liberty. In the pre-Internet world, many people lived compartmentalized lives. They might have behaved one way in the workplace, another way with family, and still another way with their friends. Young people might have felt free to live riotously on Friday night without worrying that their employers or parents would learn of their antics on Monday morning. These varied social settings created a degree of freedom from the kind of stifling social conventions Mill wrote about.

But Facebook has a strict rule against adopting multiple identities, which erodes this kind of compartmentalization. For example, shortly before Barack Obama became president, 27-year-old Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau was photographed making an obscene gesture with a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, who Obama had recently named as his Secretary of State. A decade earlier, such a photograph likely would not have circulated beyond a small group of friends. But the photo was posted on Facebook and wound up being covered by the Washington Post, forcing Favreau to issue an apology to the former first lady.

This kind of incident has become fairly common as young people have begun regularly posting information about their personal lives on social networking sites. This has become a source of significant angst, especially among older observers who view such behavior as reckless over-sharing.

Yet the dangers can easily be overstated. In the pre-Facebook era, it would indeed have been awkward and potentially career-damaging to have photographs of your drunken antics circulating among potential employers. But the ubiquity of social networks is itself helping to mitigate this danger. Today lots of young people have mildly embarrassing photographs on their Facebook pages; an employer who refused to hire anyone with such pictures would be significantly reducing his potential labor force. The very ubiquity of online sharing is creating a society that is more tolerant of certain kinds of behavior.

Facebook has also taken steps to mitigate these problems. For example, you can now define sub-groups of friends and limit access to posts, pictures, and other content only to people in a particular sub-group. This process is cumbersome enough that a lot of people don't bother to use it, but it's available for those who are particularly worried about one group of Facebook friends seeing information meant for another group.

And not all social networking sites follow Facebook's rigid "real name" policy. Twitter, for example, allows users to have as many accounts as they wish and allows those accounts to be pseudonymous. Someone who wants to be candid online but fears the offline repercussions is free to join Twitter anonymously.

And it's important to remember that social media technologies, and the Internet more broadly, also has the potential to enhance the kind of liberty Mill wrote about. Consider the "it gets better" project, an effort to prevent suicides by gay teenagers by posting YouTube videos explaining how much better their lives will become after they finish high school. Social networking sites can help people who feel marginalized in their "real world" communities to build alternative communities of like-minded people who can lend each other emotional support.

So there's a real potential for broad participation in social media sites to produce increased pressures for social conformity. But on net, I think social networks primarily have the opposite effect. They allow like-minded people to meet each other and build rich online relationships. At the same time, by bringing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives in contact with each other, social networks have the potential to make all of us a little more tolerant and open-minded. In the long run, that's going to make us freer in both a political sense and a social one.

 

Two New Big Questions:

Is it appropriate for employers to monitor and control their employees activities on social networks? Should parents oversee their teenage children's online interactions? What steps should be taken to enhance or diminish the control of authority figures over peoples' online activities?

It is sometimes claimed that thanks to the emergence of social media, young people today are no longer interested in privacy. Is this true? How have social networking sites changed our concept of privacy and our norms relating to it?

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Hello,

What are your thoughts on the protests in Egypt and the violence in Libya, given the role social media (the YouTube video) may have played in at least one of these events?

Thank you,

Ansley Roan

The question of the relationship between social media platforms and liberty cannot be answered in 140 characters.

Tim Lee's essay is thoughtful and carefully argued.  Unfortunately such an approach yields no radical, Gladwellian insight but instead a cautious insistence on waiting for the data to come in.  

Lee focuses on the political sense of liberty in the sense of the familiar narrative of "the individual versus the state."  But there is also an adjacent argument about how "free" we are when we are "tethered" to our smart phones and facebook.  If you think this second question about freedom is merely a distraction from real discussions of freedom, consider the cases of Phoebe Prince (sp?) and Tyler Clementi and others who are the victims of online bullying (which in those two cases led to suicide).

Although I have not studied this issue with anything like the care or background of expertise that the author has, my impression is that anything that truly decentralizes information--gets it out of the control of the regime--is helpful to the first sort of "political liberty."

But many social media platforms strike me as attracting many, many people to put all of their thoughts, ideas, and, importantly, plans for political insurrection in one place.  This, it seems to me, means that a savvy government could shut it down more easily, at least at first.  Having all the eggs in one basket can't be a good idea.

I'm not even sanguine about this in the U.S.  Recent revelations seem to indicate that the NSA has "wiretapped" a great deal of information on all Americans and readily shares them with the extended network of law enforcement bureaucracies across different jurisdictions/governing different activities.  I, for one, am frequently afraid to post my more radical political opinions online.  true story.

Obviously, this is a much worse problem in, say, Byelorussia.

Author

Obviously, the attacks, and the death of American personell, are tragic. As I understand it, there's still some uncertainty about the relationship between the anti-Muslim video that some claim sparked the protests and the subsequent violence.

But assuming that the attacks were a response to the video, I think it's another illustration of the fact that the increasing interconnectedness made possible by the Internet is a two-edged sword. Overall, I think YouTube is a force for international peace and harmony, since it helps people around the world share videos and thereby better understand one another. But obviously, it can also have the opposite effect, of bringing together antagonistic forces and exacerbating existing tensions.

But I think it would be a mistake to use that as a pretext for censoring platforms like YouTube. The overwhelming majority of online sharing does not lead to any sort of violence. And when violence does occur, it's ultimately the fault of those who commit it, not the platforms that may have conveyed messages the perpetrator found offensive.

Author

I don't agree with the idea of people being less free because they are "tethered to their iPhones" or subject to online bullying. A couple of points.

On the idea of being too tied to our devices, I think a lot of people who express this sentiment are suffering from a knee-jerk reaction to new technologies. A half-century ago, many people worried that people were addicted to their televisions. While some people still express concerns about the dangers of excessive television consumption, we tend to take it for granted as an ordinary part of life. The same can be said of our telephones. Twenty years ago, nobody thought a teenage girl was a slave to her telephone if she spent a lot of time talking to her friends. As our computers, tablets, and smart phones become more familiar, I think the idea that we're slaves to them will be seen as increasingly silly. We spend a lot of time using them because they make our lives richer than they would otherwise be.

People also tend to forget that the primary thing we do on our gadgets is communicate with other people. In that sense, our time spent online isn't an alternative to face-to-face interaction as it is a complement to it. Tools like Facebook and Twitter let us meet new people, keep in touch with old friends, and arrange face-to-face social activities.

I think online bullying is a real problem, especially for women. The owners of online fora can do a lot to set the tone of an online space by establishing clear rules and then moderating comments to ensure those rules are respected. Also, there's an important role for anonymity in ensuring that people feel comfortable contributing to discussions without exposing their real-world identity to scrutiny. Thanks for commenting!

Galdwell was wrong about much of the civil rights movement. The sit-in at the Greensboro, NC, Woolworth's (which was the first major sit-in in 1960) was thought-up by the four students who initiated it. After the first day, they recruited more volunteers and eventually formed an organization to coordinate the protests in Greensboro. Meanwhile, as students in other cities learned of the protests -- both through traditional media and through their social networks -- they began to organize their own independent sit-ins. Gladwell notes that many of these people had training or affiliation from the NAACP, but that hardly makes the spread of the sit-ins a campaign. Meanwhile, the Montgomery bus boycott involved local NAACP members (Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon), but they created a new organization (the Montgomery Improvement Association) to lead it, rather than rely on leadership from the NAACP's national staff.

I'm not trying minimze the importance of national groups in laying the groundwork for early civil rights protests, but to characterize the movement as a top-down campaign is laughable. One theme running through the Taylor Branch's bio of Martin Luther King, Jr., is how often local activists were frustrated with the perceived timidity of groups like NAACP and CORE, leading them to create new, more responsive alternatives (SCLC, SNCC), only to have those new groups struggle to keep up with a movement that has expanded beyond their ability to manage.

Gladwell makes two critical mistakes in his analysis: he assumes that social networking is something new, and he assumes that an idividual needs to have strong ties to a movement before getting involved with it. But a collection of churches or student groups is itself a social network, and the movement spread across the country as activists in one region saw what worked in other areas.

The people who sent money to support the bus boycotters had no strong ties to Montgomery, but they had strong ties to their local churches, which had weaker ties to churches in Montomery. The students at the sit-ins had strong ties to each other, but weak ties to the students at the sit-ins in other cities. The Freedom Summer volunteers had strong ties to each other and to SNCC, but few ties to the South at all. What got them all together was the social networks that existed between these groups. What kept them together was that they developed strong ties to other people within the movement and to the movement as a whole.

Clay Shirkey defined three levels of awareness that lead to a mass movement:

1. when everybody knows something
2. when everybody knows that everybody knows
3. when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows

In the first level, protesters needs the courage to act alone, because they can't be sure anyone agrees with them. In the second, those with less courage will join them, because they have strong ties to a group that agrees and can act together. In the third, those with weak ties to the original protesters will learn of the actions, and, because the protest is now so large, will have less fear of joining.

It took a lot of courage to refuse to give up a seat in 1955, knowing you were alone; or to sit at a lunch counter in 1960, knowing you only had three companions for support. But thanks to the changes in society that those actions helped to create, a supporter of civil rights heading to the March on Washington in 1963 could count on having closer to 300,000 companions. The same thing happened in Egypt, but thanks to sites like facebook, twitter and youtube, it all happened much quicker.

Social media sites are tools. We can use them to develop strong ties or weak ties. We can use them to watch events unfold, to participate in events, or to try to shape events. In this way they are different from the social networking sites of the past -- village squares, cafes, pamplets,  letters, phones, etc. -- only in their reach, and as such they definitely promote individual liberty.

Author

jlansner, those are great points. You clearly know more about the Civil Rights movement than I do so I don't have a lot to add. I'm a big fan of Clay Shirkey's work, and his "levels of awareness" seem very relevant here.

Author

jlansner, those are great points. You clearly know more about the Civil Rights movement than I do so I don't have a lot to add. I'm a big fan of Clay Shirkey's work, and his "levels of awareness" seem very relevant here.

Galdwell was wrong about much of the civil rights movement. The sit-in at the Greensboro, NC, Woolworth's (which was the first major sit-in in 1960) was thought-up by the four students who initiated it. After the first day, they recruited more volunteers and eventually formed an organization to coordinate the protests in Greensboro. Meanwhile, as students in other cities learned of the protests -- both through traditional media and through their social networks -- they began to organize their own independent sit-ins. Gladwell notes that many of these people had training or affiliation from the NAACP, but that hardly makes the spread of the sit-ins a campaign. Meanwhile, the Montgomery bus boycott involved local NAACP members (Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon), but they created a new organization (the Montgomery Improvement Association) to lead it, rather than rely on leadership from the NAACP's national staff.

I'm not trying minimze the importance of national groups in laying the groundwork for early civil rights protests, but to characterize the movement as a top-down campaign is laughable. One theme running through the Taylor Branch's bio of Martin Luther King, Jr., is how often local activists were frustrated with the perceived timidity of groups like NAACP and CORE, leading them to create new, more responsive alternatives (SCLC, SNCC), only to have those new groups struggle to keep up with a movement that has expanded beyond their ability to manage.

Gladwell makes two critical mistakes in his analysis: he assumes that social networking is something new, and he assumes that an idividual needs to have strong ties to a movement before getting involved with it. But a collection of churches or student groups is itself a social network, and the movement spread across the country as activists in one region saw what worked in other areas.

The people who sent money to support the bus boycotters had no strong ties to Montgomery, but they had strong ties to their local churches, which had weaker ties to churches in Montomery. The students at the sit-ins had strong ties to each other, but weak ties to the students at the sit-ins in other cities. The Freedom Summer volunteers had strong ties to each other and to SNCC, but few ties to the South at all. What got them all together was the social networks that existed between these groups. What kept them together was that they developed strong ties to other people within the movement and to the movement as a whole.

Clay Shirkey defined three levels of awareness that lead to a mass movement:

1. when everybody knows something
2. when everybody knows that everybody knows
3. when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows

In the first level, protesters needs the courage to act alone, because they can't be sure anyone agrees with them. In the second, those with less courage will join them, because they have strong ties to a group that agrees and can act together. In the third, those with weak ties to the original protesters will learn of the actions, and, because the protest is now so large, will have less fear of joining.

It took a lot of courage to refuse to give up a seat in 1955, knowing you were alone; or to sit at a lunch counter in 1960, knowing you only had three companions for support. But thanks to the changes in society that those actions helped to create, a supporter of civil rights heading to the March on Washington in 1963 could count on having closer to 300,000 companions. The same thing happened in Egypt, but thanks to sites like facebook, twitter and youtube, it all happened much quicker.

Social media sites are tools. We can use them to develop strong ties or weak ties. We can use them to watch events unfold, to participate in events, or to try to shape events. In this way they are different from the social networking sites of the past -- village squares, cafes, pamplets,  letters, phones, etc. -- only in their reach, and as such they definitely promote individual liberty.

Author

I don't agree with the idea of people being less free because they are "tethered to their iPhones" or subject to online bullying. A couple of points.

On the idea of being too tied to our devices, I think a lot of people who express this sentiment are suffering from a knee-jerk reaction to new technologies. A half-century ago, many people worried that people were addicted to their televisions. While some people still express concerns about the dangers of excessive television consumption, we tend to take it for granted as an ordinary part of life. The same can be said of our telephones. Twenty years ago, nobody thought a teenage girl was a slave to her telephone if she spent a lot of time talking to her friends. As our computers, tablets, and smart phones become more familiar, I think the idea that we're slaves to them will be seen as increasingly silly. We spend a lot of time using them because they make our lives richer than they would otherwise be.

People also tend to forget that the primary thing we do on our gadgets is communicate with other people. In that sense, our time spent online isn't an alternative to face-to-face interaction as it is a complement to it. Tools like Facebook and Twitter let us meet new people, keep in touch with old friends, and arrange face-to-face social activities.

I think online bullying is a real problem, especially for women. The owners of online fora can do a lot to set the tone of an online space by establishing clear rules and then moderating comments to ensure those rules are respected. Also, there's an important role for anonymity in ensuring that people feel comfortable contributing to discussions without exposing their real-world identity to scrutiny. Thanks for commenting!

Author

Obviously, the attacks, and the death of American personell, are tragic. As I understand it, there's still some uncertainty about the relationship between the anti-Muslim video that some claim sparked the protests and the subsequent violence.

But assuming that the attacks were a response to the video, I think it's another illustration of the fact that the increasing interconnectedness made possible by the Internet is a two-edged sword. Overall, I think YouTube is a force for international peace and harmony, since it helps people around the world share videos and thereby better understand one another. But obviously, it can also have the opposite effect, of bringing together antagonistic forces and exacerbating existing tensions.

But I think it would be a mistake to use that as a pretext for censoring platforms like YouTube. The overwhelming majority of online sharing does not lead to any sort of violence. And when violence does occur, it's ultimately the fault of those who commit it, not the platforms that may have conveyed messages the perpetrator found offensive.

The question of the relationship between social media platforms and liberty cannot be answered in 140 characters.

Tim Lee's essay is thoughtful and carefully argued.  Unfortunately such an approach yields no radical, Gladwellian insight but instead a cautious insistence on waiting for the data to come in.  

Lee focuses on the political sense of liberty in the sense of the familiar narrative of "the individual versus the state."  But there is also an adjacent argument about how "free" we are when we are "tethered" to our smart phones and facebook.  If you think this second question about freedom is merely a distraction from real discussions of freedom, consider the cases of Phoebe Prince (sp?) and Tyler Clementi and others who are the victims of online bullying (which in those two cases led to suicide).

Although I have not studied this issue with anything like the care or background of expertise that the author has, my impression is that anything that truly decentralizes information--gets it out of the control of the regime--is helpful to the first sort of "political liberty."

But many social media platforms strike me as attracting many, many people to put all of their thoughts, ideas, and, importantly, plans for political insurrection in one place.  This, it seems to me, means that a savvy government could shut it down more easily, at least at first.  Having all the eggs in one basket can't be a good idea.

I'm not even sanguine about this in the U.S.  Recent revelations seem to indicate that the NSA has "wiretapped" a great deal of information on all Americans and readily shares them with the extended network of law enforcement bureaucracies across different jurisdictions/governing different activities.  I, for one, am frequently afraid to post my more radical political opinions online.  true story.

Obviously, this is a much worse problem in, say, Byelorussia.

Hello,

What are your thoughts on the protests in Egypt and the violence in Libya, given the role social media (the YouTube video) may have played in at least one of these events?

Thank you,

Ansley Roan

The question of the relationship between social media platforms and liberty cannot be answered in 140 characters.

Tim Lee's essay is thoughtful and carefully argued.  Unfortunately such an approach yields no radical, Gladwellian insight but instead a cautious insistence on waiting for the data to come in.  

Lee focuses on the political sense of liberty in the sense of the familiar narrative of "the individual versus the state."  But there is also an adjacent argument about how "free" we are when we are "tethered" to our smart phones and facebook.  If you think this second question about freedom is merely a distraction from real discussions of freedom, consider the cases of Phoebe Prince (sp?) and Tyler Clementi and others who are the victims of online bullying (which in those two cases led to suicide).

Although I have not studied this issue with anything like the care or background of expertise that the author has, my impression is that anything that truly decentralizes information--gets it out of the control of the regime--is helpful to the first sort of "political liberty."

But many social media platforms strike me as attracting many, many people to put all of their thoughts, ideas, and, importantly, plans for political insurrection in one place.  This, it seems to me, means that a savvy government could shut it down more easily, at least at first.  Having all the eggs in one basket can't be a good idea.

I'm not even sanguine about this in the U.S.  Recent revelations seem to indicate that the NSA has "wiretapped" a great deal of information on all Americans and readily shares them with the extended network of law enforcement bureaucracies across different jurisdictions/governing different activities.  I, for one, am frequently afraid to post my more radical political opinions online.  true story.

Obviously, this is a much worse problem in, say, Byelorussia.