On Digital Citizenship and Posterity

Digital citizenship is a concept I’ve thought about quite a bit over the last 14 months or so. Less the notion that we could one day be a part of some digital nation state and more the idea that we already are. And that our digital footprint online in and of itself is an entity. The sum total of the things that we author or post or share or like contributes in some way to something that’s other than an abstract stack of bits on a server. That entity crosses through the semipermeable membrane of screens into reality and effects life.

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It’s not a particularly radical concept. But since the dawn of social media there’s been an irrational distance between the standard we’ll settle on for the things we spread around and the one we will in “IRL”. I’ve got friends who are steely eyed industry or military leaders who have no problem slinging a sort of bullshit online that rests on a loose factual standard that they’d never for a second tolerate in their offices. Yet they persist.

Absurdities stamped “something to think about “ or lunatic perspectives clumsily wrapped in a “two sides to an argument” package abound.

What’s interesting to me is that the lower standard we have for our digital footprint is strangely misaligned with how we’re programmed to care about our reputations and to seek status. Once something is posted it belongs to the world. There may be privacy settings or the ability to delete it or block people. But if it matters enough, it’s only a screenshot away from global super spread. It’s also likely permanent. A thousand years from now you and I will be dust. But I can’t get away from the thought that some advanced civilization is going to be crawling around my tweets like they were found in a clay pot in the south of Galilee. Unless we degrade into an apocalyptic Mad Max future quickly, it will be harder to destroy bits than it ever was to destroy papyrus.

When I converted the blog posts that became the essays for my first book, I did it with a sense that it was going into print. And that this was something more permanent. I’m not entirely sure why I wouldn’t think that it will end up being the other way around. A tweet I sent about how I hated the 1986 Mets was seen by more people than read my book. And I don’t own the data or the platform it lives on. The future civilization that breaks the boundaries of one planet existence won’t likely be taking my book. But they might take Twitter and all my tweets.

…my God.

The notion that it’s all just simply harmless banter really didn’t survive the pandemic. Or January 6th. What we spread matters. And it might live forever. And more people than you’ll ever be able to tell in person will see it. Rationally we should care more about how we express ourselves online and have a higher standard for it than what we say face to face in more formal settings. Take this post from my personal Facebook account. And note the date.

100 years from today when they study the pandemic, it’s possible something like this is the only thing the world may ever know about me. I’m sad to have been somewhat close to right here. But I actually put great value in having shared this when I did. And I’d be horrified to have been on the other side of it to the point where I’d be compelled to acknowledge that I was wrong and had learned something valuable lest no one ever take me seriously again.

I think of the people I had to mute or de-friend/follow over the last year that were content to spout harmful nonsense. And I wonder why they’re fine with being so publicly and unambiguously and harmfully wrong. I don’t just not deal with them on social media by the way. I actually take them far less seriously as people. And I wouldn’t trust them with any aspect of anything that matters. I am considered strange in this though.

To be clear, I’m not talking about hate speech or violent threats online. The system generally (not perfectly) corrects quite swiftly for that. The low standard people have for honesty or accuracy on what they share is something different though. People I know quite well took to a digital platform and having no idea what they were talking about, declared that people shouldn’t take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. And then 3.5 million people died in 14 months. 600 thousand Americans. 4 people I knew well personally.

Nothing in my life has ever and I hope will ever again have that scale of impact. Not the two wars I served in. Not 9/11. Nothing comes close. Yet people spread harmful conspiracy information. And then went back to posting cat memes while 4000 Americans a day were dying. By the principles of posterity and credibility, we should judge them harshly and care deeply that few ever come back to settle with the universe that they were wrong.

“You know, I was really wrong about the Pandemic.” is a post I’ve yet to see.

One reason for the lack of accountability is that these opinions are potentially deletable or private. And so they matter less. I’m not sure how that calculus works. They’re not private. If they were then why post them. And they can be deleted but not unsaid. I remember these folks not because I went back and reviewed what they said later. I remember it because they posted this stuff in the moment.

For what it’s worth, they also don’t delete them. They just hang out where they were posted. Someone I grew up with died of Covid this past January. It was a horrible tragedy. He’s gone now but his social media pages are still live and so is his post six days after the one I wrote above countering my sentiment and saying that Covid was bullshit, that it was politics trying to take down the president that it’s just the flu and to call your congressman.

Another reason is that it’s likely true that many people simply don’t value intellectual reputation. In which case it’s probably fair to ask why they’re sharing intellectual thoughts on a public platform then.

I think what’s really happening is that people do care that they’re perceived as stupid or dishonest. And people do read their social media comments and consider them stupid or dishonest. And significant social capital is lost but in a way that’s not obvious to the originator of the stupid or dishonest content because of how online content works. The feedback loop isn’t completed. And the lesson never learned. And the network effect is a form of broad social capital bankruptcy that we’re slogging through today.

I don’t know how to fix it.

The best principle I can settle on is to tweet or post like it will be the only thing anyone will ever know about you in 200 years. Because that’s reasonably likely to be true. And if that’s just too abstract, maybe to treat what we spread as something of consequence. Or at least fear large swaths of people thinking you are stupid or dishonest. And have a sense that we’re responsible for our social media feeds.