“With much power comes much responsibility”
Such is the popular rendering of the conclusion of the parable of the talents.
This week, channel 4 began a new programme, The Audience, in which 50 people follow another person around. Most active people on Twitter have a lot more than 50 followers. Some of those may be spammers, but many are real people. The idea of your social networks being physically present was also exploited in a recent tv advertisement for tea.
Do you think you would change your behaviour online if you could see all the people who follow you on Twitter, are friends with you on Facebook or read your blog? When you see a number on a computer screen, it can be easy to abstractify it – stripping it of the meaning it represents. I know I can be prone to do that, working in finance, since you might have over 1,000 different numbers on a spreadsheet, some of which may be people’s salaries. They all look similar, but some are the numbers which people rely on to live day by day.
Amongst those that follow you, there will probably be a wide spectrum of people in different situations and with different opinions. Do you often stop and think about the possible reactions you might get? Is anyone going to be offended? Might you be addressing someone who knows a lot more about a subject than you? Have you, as far as reasonable, checked your facts?
Social media and the modern web (at least in the West) allows for a formidable platform for free speech. What we write and say can now be broadcast to the world at the click of a mouse. While your idea to make the world seriously reconsider issues of international importance based on what you tap on your home computer may prove to be futile, you may (if, say, you get retweeted by someone with lots of followers) still be read by a few thousand people.
With such a scope, there is the possibility of saying something stupid and having it echoed back, reverberating in places you would never have imagined. We have seen what can happen when technology is misused this week in two main instances: the film insulting Muhammad and the pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.
I have not seen either, nor do I wish to. But a quick look on a search engine showed that each was readily available to anyone who wanted. The reactions to these have been marked by differences in tone, but each have expressed an anger at offensive against that which people hold dear.
The apostle Paul wrote,
“’All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.” (1 Cor 10:23,24; NRSV)
The idea of free speech should not be mistaken for the need to partake in unnecessary offense. Just because we can say and do what we want, doesn’t mean that we should. To do so is to demonstrate a childishly immature attitude.
We need to take responsibility for what we say – and I do not think I am better than anyone else in this respect; I’m sure you can find examples on this blog where I have said stupid things I ought not to have said. I just need to take a little care before I hit the “Publish” button or the like, and I would encourage you to do the same, if you don’t already.