A few years ago when I was still reading newspapers, I saw a report about a columnist at a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia who was ‘let go’ because she sent some ‘controversial’ messages via Twitter while at a TV awards night. Now, I would not be surprised if you hadn’t heard of this: it’s hardly Earth shattering, and it isn’t really important on any number of levels if you ask me.
What I want to talk about here is a follow up opinion piece I read a few days later. In it the commentator, while claiming to put the responsibility squarely on the offending Twitterer, writes, ‘… the availability and immediacy of the technology intrude upon the normal choices and judgments which people make.’ He adds that services like Twitter, Facebook, emails and the rest, ‘bring into the public realm many things that would previously remain private.’
Of course, he’s right there isn’t he? You read all sorts of stuff out there in social media land and it ‘ain’t all pretty, as the saying goes. This guy goes on to say that we are at ‘an evolutionary disjunct between old notions of the public and private spheres and the means of communications now widely available.’
Therefore, it seems to follow that it’s not your fault if, when visiting social media land, you blurt out something that you might later regret or that is offensive or libelous or otherwise insensitive. Or is it? Well, of course it’s your fault. You, like me and everyone else, are responsible for what we say and do whether it’s online or in person or on a postcard!
There is a story about US president Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know Roosevelt had polio and used a wheelchair. However, for public speeches he stood with ‘discreet assistance’. Apparently, one day he actually fell over and lay sprawled and helpless in front of the assembled Washington press corps. Of the dozens of photographers there guess how many took a photo? Go on guess.
Okay, I’ll tell you. Not one. That’s right: no photographer thought it was relevant; they all—each and every one of those hungry ‘vultures’—judged that it was a personal matter and therefore not to be reported. You can bet that if a world leader fell in front of the cameras today it would be in your inbox, on YouTube and plastered all over the Internet before he or she was back on his or her feet.
Something similar happened to me a while back while I was working on the street. I saw a guy leaning against a tree. Instinctively I raised the camera to my eye; then, just as instinctively I lowered it again and went to the man and asked him if he was okay. He told me he was feeling really sick, so I offered to help him to a doctor. To cut a long story short, he had nothing serious and it all ended well.
My point is that, just like those Washington photographers, I had a choice: make the photo or not. Like them I decided this was not a photo “opportunity”, so put the camera down.
You know something? I have always thought that if there was one tool that shouted ‘availability and immediacy’ it’s the camera. This isn’t a new idea of course: it’s about the decisive moment and all that. Photography 101 you might say.
So how come it’s so different with the buttons on your mouse or your mobile? Especially as you usually have to type a message before you get to send it. If you ask me that’s a lot less immediate than the camera shutter. What I’m getting at here in my usual long-winded fashion is this: if those photographers could make the decision in the heat of the moment to not press the button, why do we need to make excuses for us ‘modern types’ with our keyboards and mobile phones and whatever?
Of course, the answer is we don’t. As I said, we are all responsible for what we say and do. I suppose a good motto to follow in our online or other communications—and in life generally— would be ‘Do No Harm’. Or at least, do as little harm as possible.
Now, I am not saying here that I’ve never said anything on Twitter, or on Facebook or any other place, that was hurtful or insensitive or judgemental or in other ways just not good to say. Mind you, I do try to stick to my little motto, Do No Harm (it’s not mine of course, I just adopted it).
And for those times when I have failed, I apologise very sincerely. I do not make excuses; I can choose to press send or click OK or whatever after I’ve typed a message (note my italics please), just as I can choose to press my camera’s shutter button.
Let’s not have any more of this ‘evolutionary disjunct’ stuff. Though, when you think about it, we actually are at a lot of those type of places right now, don’t you think? It’s just that I would rather not use this particular disjunct (I love this word) as an excuse to be sloppy when it comes to how I communicate with friends and strangers alike in cyberspace, or in terrestrial space, or even in my head!