Fear of oversight is stronger than ever! Have I said too much?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), writing on power and punishment, described how we moved from a world in which our freedoms were limited through the exercise of external power to one where our freedoms are limited through the exercise of our own self-control. This is even more true today of our behaviour online. Tech savvy users are careful not to put anything into an email or an online post that could reflect badly on them in the future. The fear of oversight and the fear of the documentation of any misdeed controls our behaviour. We are not as free as we think we are.

On social networks there are many invitations to support political causes – ‘refugees’ vs ‘border protection’, ‘social welfare’ vs ‘economic self-responsibility’ etc. Some people are afraid to express their views on topical issues like these. Others express their views freely, sometimes to their cost. Most of us self-regulate because we fear the exercise of power against us. Civil authorities and future employers may respond unfavourably to some free expression online. The possibility that our views may be observed by others controls us.

In important respects our behaviour is more effectively controlled today than ever before. That has both positive and negative consequences. One of the positives is that it encourages us to behave responsibly – to be accountable and to be ‘good citizens’. Those who are caught out in the act of bullying or expressing racial hatred online run the risk of serious consequences to their careers and to their reputations.

Many people who are building or maintaing their careers choose to keep separate professional and private profiles. There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s not what I do, but I understand why separation makes sense for many people. If you want followers on Twitter who are interested in education, then perhaps it’s best not to tweet about your weekend sailing the Whitsundays or who you’ll be voting for at the next election. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. How public and how focused do you want to be?

I mostly post in public across a range of topics that interest me. I’ve already completed two careers – one in teaching and one in business – so I’ve less need to be careful than someone in their twenties with a lifetime of work and future employers ahead of them. Nonetheless, I still moderate my posts. I act part-time as teacher, professional developer and consultant, so I try to portray a professional image online. If I’m ‘googled’ I want people to gain a positive impression of me.

That doesn’t stop me from broaching more controversial subjects – religion, sex, politics etc. – but when it comes to discussing topics about which people are especially sensitive, I’m more likely to use a pseudonym or to communicate with a restricted audience. My arguments are sometimes more forthright and aggressive in these contexts, but I always treat people with respect, even when they say outrageous things. I do this because I’m ‘a good citizen’, but also because I know that, since my anonymity  can evaporate at any time, being ‘a good citizen’ is in my own best interests. If I’m aggressive in putting a logical argument, but remain respectful of the person on the other side, I can live with the consequences. If I call them ‘a fool’ or ‘an idiot’, it neither makes me feel better nor creates a positive impression for those who might come across my rudeness.

Following Foucault’s advice, we need to be aware of the structures of power that exist around us. We have to be careful what we say and who we say it to. Exercising self-discipline is even more important in the twenty first century than it was in the twentieth. Students, teachers and anyone who is active online need to understand the importance of promoting an image of themselves that creates a positive impression for as many potential viewers as possible. It’s worth deleting those Facebook profile pictures featuring a beer in the hand or cigarette in the mouth. Image matters.

Big Brother Poster

6 thoughts on “Fear of oversight is stronger than ever! Have I said too much?

  1. Great post. The idea of us being good citizens not just because of our own motivations but also because our bad behaviour can come back to haunt us is interesting. We’ve seen recent examples of people who lead everyday lives but then resort to horrible behaviour online because they think they can remain anonymous (the unmasking of notorious Reddit user Violentacrez is the best example). Self control becomes very difficult when there is a level of anonymity.
    It’s ironic then that some people who have little freedom in real life can find ways to rebel against those who restrict their freedom, using the anonymity of the web. Yet those who are relatively free use the web’s anonymity to engage in terrible behaviour.
    I guess like so many other developments throughout history, the web merely serves to highlight both the good and bad side of human behaviour.

  2. Yes, that’s an interesting irony you point out Cameron – those feeling restricted in their ‘real lives’ lashing out using the cover of anonymity on the web!

    Real names bring a degree of accountability that pseudonyms don’t. That’s one reason why I think it’s better for students to use their real names in online in educational settings. Exceptions for situations involving family violence with access restrictions make sense, but for most students I believe that the risk of harm from using real names at school is over-blown and seriously under estimates the benefits of transparency. Cyber-safety paranoia still masquerades as conventional wisdom in many educational settings – sadly among some ‘cyber-safety experts’. If children want to share something with a friend it’s much easier to share with marnie.p@eastmelbourneps.vic.edu than with paum045@eastmelbourneps.vic.edu.au. If friends want to comment on Marnie’s school blog post they may have difficulty even finding it if it’s posted by paum045. No such problem with marnie.p!

  3. I believe you’ve hit on the crux of the matter when you say near the end ‘we need to be aware of the structures of power that exist around us’. Many people are completely unaware of how things work online (especially free things) and more to the point don’t really want to know.

  4. Yes Catherine, I think ‘ignorance is bliss’ summarises the situation for many … and the bliss can be replaced by embarrassment or worse on short notice.

  5. Nice post John.
    I have no problem holding my tongue when my views differ from my obligations as an employee. For instance I would always hold the “corporate line” on DEECD policies when I was employed by them. However, I don’t think that precludes me from voicing an opinion on refugees or other social welfare issues. Of course, if I worked in immigration then the opposite would be true. I don’t believe this reduces my freedoms, I just think this is being professional. I’d expect no less from any other employees.

    However, if it ever came the time when my personal beliefs were so contrary to my professional obligations then I hope I’d do the right thing and quit.

  6. Thanks Richard. That’s a succinct explanation of how and why ‘professional obligations’ limit our freedom of expression. We compromise for the sake of the team, but we reserve the right to quit the team if its priorities diverge too far from our own. Apart from whistleblower situations, public criticism of our employer’s policies makes us look unprofessional.

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