Soap Stores and Coffee Boxes: How Public is the Internet?

The US Supreme Court recently ruled that even though we’re carrying our entire lives in our pockets, we’re still entitled to keep aspects of those lives private. Ease of access does not entail expectation of access.

And let’s be real: someone who has 137 Tumblr followers mostly doesn’t expect anyone aside from those followers, and maybe one or two of their followers, to notice anything they post. Most of the original content or commentary I see my friends post is directed at, well, their friends. People they’re in a mutual follow with. Maybe they put things in the fandom tags.

But there’s always The Unexpectedly Successful Text Post phenomenon: things go viral, usually the most surprising things. Something I write today could be plastered across everything tomorrow. How can I tell? I can’t.

Switching gears for a minute: If I’m having a conversation with a friend in a coffee shop about the failure modes of capitalism, even though I’m in a public place and just anyone could listen in, I expect that conversation to stay private. I might be very wrong, but the likelihood is very small. I am probably safe assuming that my coffee shop conversation will stay essentially private.

If I am standing on a soap box in Times Square declaiming my views about the failure modes of capitalism, I definitely expect those words to be public. I could be wrong; I could be ignored by everyone who walks by. (I think this is the fate of most street preachers around the nearby university campus.) But because of my mode of delivery, I cannot assume that my soap box preaching will stay private.

Everyone tells us, the internet is public! The internet is forever! Literally anything you put on the internet could go viral at any moment! And technically, they are correct. However, given that people who are supposed to be viral marketing experts don’t always succeed at creating virality, the likelihood I experience that anything I do is going to accidentally produce an epidemiologically interesting situation is essentially nil. It is essentially rational to treat most social media as coffee shop conversations, or, at worst, convention afterparty conversations, where more people might join in but they’ll generally be people who hold similar or compatible views, and whom I or others near me have probably already met.

And yet. And yet. If I do screw up and something I did gets out of control, I take the blame for not foreseeing the possibility. “CONSTANT VIGILANCE,” they thunder. It’s so easy to not screw up; all you have to do is carefully compartmentalize, just like you do in the other areas of your life, and make sure to be blameless in all ways at all times, just like… nobody, ever, not even St. Francis, who was basically Jesus without the allegations of divinity.

Constant vigilance is awfully tiring. As I’m sure many other women will testify if asked, it’s really hard to never let your guard slip around anyone who might possibly be inclined to assault you, especially because individual instances of actual danger are likely to be so irregularly spaced that you can’t possibly predict an incident before it happens. And although unlike people who do stupid stuff on the internet, it’s not an assault victim’s fault, they are blamed for their human imperfection about as consistently as people who do stupid stuff on the internet.

Further, to require constant vigilance places an additional and undue burden on those who are not currently-abled in body or mind. I have seen multiple people complaining that they are criticized overly harshly for using words that have fallen out of favor, when they cannot, for instance, simultaneously regulate their language to the current stringent standards and have the mental energy to discuss the ideas that need to be discussed (such as, potentially, ableism in online social justice venues!). And these are people who are intentionally inserting themselves into discussion. How much harder, then, to regulate one’s language in what one expects to be a casual conversation?

The question comes down to this: Is my risk assessment unrealistic, or are your expectations for my risk mitigation unrealistic? Is it actually okay to say, in a coffee shop, things you would never defend from a soap box in Times Square? In order to come up with new ideas and form nuanced opinions about real issues, don’t we need spaces in which dissent, uncertainty, and ideas not ready for the light of day can be tossed around? Would you condemn someone whose coffee shop conversation was quoted by Coversnitch if it revealed sensitive information and then went viral? Would you argue they never should have said it in the first place? Do you also discuss sensitive personal information in a coffee shop? (If you don’t, I suppose at least that’s consistent.)

Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms can be used, by one person, in one hour, as both soap box and coffee shop. On Tumblr the conversion is effected by the use of tags; if I put a popular tag on a post, I can be fairly certain a lot of people I don’t know will see that post. If I put no tags at all on the post, nobody but my followers will see it, unless someone reblogs. I could have one post that’s collected 30k notes between two posts with under five. As long as I only have a small number of followers, 99.9% of the things I say will remain in relative obscurity. Again: is it reasonable to demand constant vigilance against a threat that may never coalesce?

I ought to be able to treat my social media conversations like a coffee shop, and not a soap box. Similarly, all workers ought to make a living wage, everyone ought to be treated justly under the law, and so on. (And as long as I’m wishing, I’d like a pony.) But I do believe that to blame someone previously obscure for not anticipating a particular thing getting passed around like an interesting drink in a room full of geeks is to bypass a whole set of questions about constant vigilance, exhausting barriers of entry, expectation of privacy, and the need for casual conversations to spread and refine ideas.

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