Pete Cashmore, founder of Mashable, which is a news blog dedicated to Web 2.0 and social networking news, asked an interesting question last week about human behavior. Does social media — specifically the immediacy and accessibility of information — change the way people act in an increasingly public world, and thereby make people nicer?
Diverse Reactions Suggest A Common Answer
"I think it may improve behaviour in 'public spaces' (that term deserves its own entry), and it may extend that improved behaviour to family and friends that could turn on us - I’m thinking of The Hoff’s daughter and Alec Baldwin’s daughter (yep audio alone can be embarrassing too.) - but this is a superficial change. Behaviour is about appearances. And changing behaviour does not mean changing intent (hearts and minds)." — Richard Weiser
"How you handle a differing opinion will speak volumes about you and can either enhance (or undermine) your personal credibility." — Sharlyn Lauby with online conflict tips
"It certainly can, if we use it properly - and, as the blog post suggests, the instant exposure of social media can help throttle down bad behavior. But people are people, and I think we’ll always see a mix of goodness and folly in any method of communicating." — Steve Woodruff
"The comments at the end of the article are mixed. I for one, do not think that social media makes me a better person. Maybe a person with more access to contributing my thoughts and opinions or a person with more public visibility or a person who is more careful of what I choose to throw around online, but not a better person." — Practicum Pioneers
"Social media doesn’t make us better people, but it does make us more conscious people." — Melissa at ZooLoo
"You hear too often about people getting caught in the act of committing unacceptable societal acts (i.e. most recently Michael Phelps). With people becoming more socially active on the Web, not only do you have big brother government watching, you also have millions of other people that are watching if they really wanted to. More than ever, you need to protect your reputation, because it can be tarnished in an flash." — Ismael Seguban
Common Answers Clarify Complex Questions
Two years from now (barring government restrictions), it's very unlikely we will distinguish Internet communication or social media from other forms of communication. It will become part of the whole, much like all other mediums eventually became indistinguishable as they were adopted. And, therein lies the answer to Cashmore's question.
Direct intervention, such as changing the environment as any new medium or technology does, influences behavior. However, direct intervention generally does not change a person's character. Only indirect intervention, such as nurturing specific ideas or encouraging specific choices so that people might choose to change themselves, instills a legacy of positive behavior.
In other words, while the immediacy, accessibility, and diminished privacy may influence the way we interact — knowing that any of our actions, conversations, and correspondence could be published for public consumption — it does not change human behavior or character. It only makes us temporarily more guarded.