On The Moral Psychology of Social Media

Posted on September 25, 2017 by

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When one researches within the domain of moral psychology their aim is mostly to investigate human functioning within a specific or general moral context. These investigations may impact wider debates being had in the domain of ethical theory. In this short post I’d like to think out loud a bit about the moral psychology of social media and what lessons we may be able to draw from the norms that are emerging from a number of platforms. Ultimately I’ll be asking a set of questions and offering only partial answers to a couple of them with the hopes of writing on these questions later and filling in the answers with more detail as well. What I am most intrigued by lately has been the norm, or at least the perceived norm I have seen, of sharing positive things but not sharing negative things. In other words, I am interested in why we do not share negative things, why we tend to think of those that do share such things differently, and why such norms may be hurtful to those most in need of comfort from their extended family of social friends. If you’ve read some interesting stuff on this feel free to post a link in the comment thread.

I have often wondered what is okay to share on my FaceBook or Twitter feed. I’m a fairly open person who has moved a bit over the past 8 years so I utilize social media to keep in touch with and keep tabs on those friends that I can no longer catch up with over a beer or a coffee. Sending multiple texts to multiple friends seems over the top and far too time consuming when I have a platform that I can use to share ONE TIME about any news I find worthwhile to share. This way whoever cares to check in can do so when they have the time and they are not pressured to respond to a direct message I may send instead. This allows me to share what’s going on without burdening my friends who are busy doing their own thing with constant texts and direct updates. Don’t get me wrong, I still text and snap with friends but I try not to bombard them and using Facebook and Twitter affords me the opportunity to keep those who care to know what’s going on in the loop. I also utilize these platforms to discuss my work and the work of others with colleagues from around the world. I’ve transitioned to twitter to do this for the most part but still do use Facebook for this reason as well (though admittedly I tend to engage on the page of others when on FaceBook). This has allowed me to mix business and personal life fairly easily. I post sparingly about personal stuff on my @justincaouette twitter account and I’m getting into far less philosophical debates these days on facebook. Things go fairly smoothly or so it may seem.

Okay, so far so good; I’ve just described what I think is a fairly widespread use of social media. Some people use it for business and others for pleasure and then there are those, like myself, that try to use it for both. But so many questions have sprung up for me over the last few years that I think it’s time to do *some* philosophical work regarding the ethics of social media (though admittedly it will be quite light). Specifically, I’m interested in these questions: (1) when should I share something? (2) who should I share this with? (3) why do I share my good news but rarely share my bad news? (4) What are the norms regarding social media sharing? (5) Are we justified in making broad evaluations of a person based on what they share or how often they share? Some of these questions are normative and some of them are not but I think they are all important when trying to correctly navigate our online presence and evaluating the presence of others.

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In thinking through these questions I was struck by something my friend Samir Chopra recently wrote on the topic. He writes:

“There is something undignified, grubby, and sordid about the whole business (of social media): this massive machinery of communication, all tricked out in its many glories, with its complex software and hardware and intangible protocols, all dedicated to selling us goods. It is a cosmic letdown of sorts to realize that our communications with family and friends, our passionate and informed political discussions, are merely there to inform advertisers of what our preferences, are, so that they may more accurately direct their trinkets and baubles at us. Something important happens on social media—we are, after all, communicating with each other—but we realize too, that we are being used. A social network is a good thing; one used for advertising, controlled by a corporation, and used to spy and surveil us, is not.

I have no positive theory to offer here; no suggestion of an alternative system, a new social network. (Competitors to Facebook, like Google Plus and Diaspora, are anything but.) But we should be aware to what is happening to us, and how we are changing. That sensitivity, at least, should help us navigate these new, uncharted waters of communications and relationships, and ultimately how we see the world, and ourselves in it.”

This bolded passage struck me because it is quite easy to forget this clear point! We need to be aware that our relationships are being affected (and in no small way for some of us) by the use of social media. What we choose or not choose to share has affects on us and our loved ones. And this is why I think it’s important to not only keep Samir’s suggestion in mind but also to develop or at least apply our moral views or moral reasoning to accomodate the social media domain. After all, if our ethical theory is to guide our action then what better place to utilize these theories than in the social media domain? So consider this a really poor first attempt at doing just that. But before making ought claims about what we should or should not be doing on our feeds I’d like to share a personal anecdote which may add some rationale to the answers I’ll tentatively give to these questions. Warning: in what follows is a paragraph of sappy shit, kinda.

In July 2015 my wife and I broke up abruptly after nearly 10 years of being together. As I mentioned earlier I tend to share often on social media but I decided not to share this information. I spoke to close friends in person and on the phone but I was silent on social media. As the weeks and months passed this caused some awkward conversations. My living arrangement was chaotic but I chose not to share that either (you’ll have to read the autobiography for the details on that one). Mutual friends were publicly asking about why I wasn’t sharing pics of my ex-wife (jokingly but little did they know), others were tagging us in things unaware that we split among other little awkward moments. While others were asking if they could stay with “us” when they were coming to visit. Though hard, this wasn’t too bad; but once I started dating again it brought another lair of complexity and the decision not to share had some negative affects on a process that was already hard enough as it is. This brings me to the 5 questions I mentioned above which can be summarized in two questions (1B) Why did I not share my bad news, and should I have shared this news? and (2B) what should the evaluation be of those that decide to share such news?

To (1B) I can answer it straight forwardly as a few considerations were doing the work for me. Here are some of the considerations: I didn’t share in part because I wasn’t sure if the breakup would stick; I didn’t share in part because I was embarrassed that I could not make a relationship work that everyone who knew me knew I was dedicated to; I didn’t share in part because I didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of people feeling sorry for me. But are these good reasons for not sharing? I think the answer to this is yes and no, let me explain.

In another (excellent) post on the affects of social media, Samir touches on a criticism I hear often about social media; that it “is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are”. This produces the “fake life” people talk about when referencing the social media realm. If this is a problem, then I am part of it by not sharing this news at some point (I still have not shared the news straightforwardly (!). But it’s important to note here that it was my LACK of sharing that made me part of the problem and not the sharing of my accomplishments or of my son’s newest milestone. Further, given that one of my goals was to circumvent people feeling sorry for me it seems that not sharing this news at all seems to have backfired. Not only did I have to deal with that once they found out (some people still haven’t figured it out) but people find out at different times and so it’s been a constant answering of the very question and sentiment I was looking to prevent. Further, some people get offended that they were left out of the fray so not only do I field the initial sentiments and reactions I was looking to avoid but I also deal with further complications that not sharing at all has produced. For this reason maybe not sharing at all wasn’t the best idea.

I’m skeptical that there can be rules that apply to all forms of sharing for all people given the complexities of each of our situations in life, but I am confident that we should think a bit harder about what we share and when we share things; we should be a bit more sensitive to how our decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and the lives of others. If one has moved to be an active member of social media as an outlet of communication between friends and work colleagues, then one has an obligation to be sensitive to the affects of their online behavior.  I think the goal of this post, if there is one, is to give weight to this claim: we should think a bit harder about what we share and when we share it as our decision to share has effects on our social lives.

I have yet to comment on (2B) as this post is long enough already but maybe I’ll tackle that in the near future. I will only say that I think the norms of social media sharing create expectations for us. If the norm is that we don’t share news about our marriage and if we decide to go against that norm, I think many people will weigh in negatively on that decision (likely not out loud but still). But is a negative evaluation warranted on these grounds? I think this will depend on which moral view one appeals to. But I’d like to hear thoughts from readers on this.  If I do write more on this I’ll be sure to let you know on twitter 🙂

I’d like to hear how you all decide to share what you share and how you have navigated similar life events in your own lives as well as what worked and what did not for you.

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In closing, it seems that we are all quick to complain about the fact that social media is a fake place where everything that is shared is shiny and/or an attempt to sell some false narrative of ourselves. But if you are like me and fail to share most of the most important obstacles you face in your life then maybe you (and I) are part of that problem. That’s not to say we all should be sharing more per se, but it is to say that maybe we should think a bit harder about our evaluations of others who choose to utilize the social media platforms differently than we do.

Information on Justin’s research can be found on his website and be contacted via twitter @justincaouette