It is remarkable how something as seemingly trivial as a Facebook post could be seen to trigger off an entire revolution. And yet, if popular word is to be believed, that’s what happened in Egypt. One day, a woman decided she had had enough of government apathy, inaction and corruption and announced on Facebook that she was going to the Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo to protest. The announcement went viral and the rest is history-in-the-making.
Twitter’s role in the unraveling of this momentous development was no less critical—in mobilizing the masses within Egypt and garnering support for the protestors internationally. This is probably the reason why countries that want to control popular sentiments try to clamp down on social networking sites. Of course, there is a very strong role that traditional media played in this as well. The power of the people harnessed by social media, however, is the new tool in the hands of the people.
The politics of the matter aside, this demonstrates the power of thought when it is articulated on the internet today. It has the power to transcend the obstacles that offline communication faces. It has the power to draw out unfiltered views for public consumption.
The flip side to this power is that people now feel the need to regulate these articulations. Netizens across the world exult in the liberation that the internet brings with the supposed anonymity it offers. They also find it easy to connect directly with their heroes—Hollywood, Bollywood or real life. And why just social networking, with Web 2.0, there has also been increasing professional and other information sharing—in the form of blogs, presentations, websites and other formats. There is a constantly rising part of us on the net. And with mobile connected devices, this is made even easier.
So what is all this information sharing on the internet, especially over social networks, doing to us?
Even as it gives us a platform to vent and often comes out as spontaneous sharing, it is exposing us to an environment where what we say can be seen or read by anyone. So what you intended as a private joke between your friends and you could land you in trouble because it hurt someone’s political, social or even national sensibilities. People have lost jobs because of what they’ve shared on social networking sites. So, even though on the face of it no one’s stopping us from saying what we want, unsaid (or sometimes even said) codes of conduct are emerging.
In the last few years, after the novelty of social networking wore off (though the usage only increased), people have become more cautious about what they say online. They measure their words more carefully.
This is both, a good and a bad thing. On the one hand online conversation will eventually become more mature and on the other hand, it is making us less spontaneous.
The balance lies between paranoia and exhibitionism. Let’s hope we get there soon.