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Speech: Free and Sensitive

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In a free state, tongues too should be free.


The American founding fathers placed high value on free speech, including it as the first item in the bill of rights: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” An English novelist took it further when he said: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Free speech was declared a powerful weapon.

In the 20th century Americans invented the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Those of us who first knew the web through Mosaic knew a new kind of a pen—or keyboard—had been unleashed upon the world.

With a modem every person now had a soapbox or a bullhorn. Along came Geocities, where even a 6-year-old could have a web address. Whatever you thought or felt, you could share with the whole world: the Internet was the ultimate forum for free speech in the ultimate democracy.

But as Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility:” everyone, everywhere could see what you ever posted. Today, those posts to Facebook or your blog could cost you your job and you might not even know it. 

Except that things weren’t really like that at the beginning of the World Wide Web. The whole world could read your words, sure, but the reality was that the whole world didn’t. Only a small subset of the world of the web read your site. Back when the web was new, it was a very limited club.

“I’m not a technical person,” was the shibboleth for exclusion. Your mother certainly wouldn’t find you. Your boss wouldn’t find you. The people on the Internet had a culture, an official stance, of tolerance. The web was a place where Monty Python jokes never got old, and the residents made their own rules and enforced them. Information wants to be free!

We nerds still scorn non-technical people, but the clever—and now rich—nerds gave them entrance to the club. Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress built the bridges for everyone to join the party.

America, the birthplace of the Internet, protects everyone’s self-expression. Governments that do not protect free speech—Singapore, China, and Iran—are heavily criticized. The World Wide Web lets you talk about revolution or the wasted-ness of everyone at your party last Friday. It’s your right. But it could also be your undoing. 

Since everyone is now browsing the web, the web has become a giant, virtual town square — America’s town square. Your adventures and opinions might be acceptable in some circles, in some crannies of this vast digital public forum, but they are now also visible to a wider audience.

Almost weekly, I get an update from someone in my Facebook account regarding privacy. “Don’t let your sensitive information be seen by the wrong people!” My social security number and credit card numbers are seriously important to me, and I protect them.

But a broader understanding of ‘sensitive information’ is in order, especially for college students and younger — that sexy clubbing outfit or the comedy bong birthday present should be regarded as sensitive material, for it could cost you your job opportunity, if an employer feels it shows poor judgment. 

For older people, who ought to know better, a reminder that  there are gatekeepers looking: Dooce and the Queen of Sky are well-known examples of bloggers who got fired for posting content that displeased their employers. Those two are just examples that we know of.

It is impossible to find out how many times a job candidate or university applicant was rejected due to their internet presence. 

It used to be said, “Don’t talk about religion or politics.” That’s still good advice, even though it might leave a big silence in the social media space. People can make assumptions about you based on any random factoid. Even the liberal use of emoticons cannot fully convey tone and meaning you intend. Satire and hyperbole will often be misunderstood. Consequently, paranoid people may feel that any information at all is likely to be interpreted in the worst possible way, so it is risky to provide any information. Some reasonable people feel the same way.

2010 is a competitive time. It is wise to be thoughtful and weigh the value and the risks of sharing your information on the Internet. Sometimes it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

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  • hmmm, there’s something to be said for the accessibilty that the internet has craeted. it’s a good thing yes, but now, everyone is a writer, everyone is a columnist, everyone has an opinion they feel is the most important thing in the world, or the only one that matters. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our purity. idk.