The Costs and Benefits of Worlds Colliding
Readers weigh in on the ways that social media has changed our freedom to show different aspects of our identities in different domains.
I recently suggested that the rise of social media has undermined something that a great many Americans value: the ability to slip into a given domain and to adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate there, without that affecting one’s reception in other domains.
The article elicited many responses. Below is an edited selection of reader letters, beginning with one from a man who personifies the phenomenon:
I am a teacher. I have published works of fiction. I’ve written newspaper articles. And I’m a lay religious leader. I am not ashamed of anything I’ve done in any of these contexts. I would not mind having a dispassionate, mature person observe me in any of these aspects of my life.
But my religious beliefs are not appropriate for my classroom. My views as an educator make me more liberal than many in my faith. I have written PG-13 books that I would not want a young student to read. And I have people I know from my past whom I love who say things I find stupid, or whose political or cultural beliefs are silly or uninformed or flawed. They are not bad or objectively odious (e.g., racism, etc.). I am not ready to abandon relationships with these people. Nevertheless, I don’t want them to meet everyone I know on Twitter.
Part of me feels that it’s simply no one’s business what I do. But in the social-media world, it’s not only that our worlds have collapsed, it’s that people feel empowered to not only observe, but to comment and actively intrude in each world. I don’t think it even takes a misstep or mistake to cause destruction (I use that word carefully). Of more concern to me is that something absolutely appropriate in any one context could cause absolute destruction in all other domains. If I wrote a book that many people loved but a conservative-leaning parent found offensive, I could be fired at school. Something I said at church might anger someone whose progressive views made them skeptical of religion. I could be quietly ignored by a newspaper editor. If a piece I wrote conflicted with religious sensibilities, I could be expelled. If enough people made enough noise, I could lose my job, even if what I did had no bearing on what I did or said in my classroom.
In my mind, then, it’s not only that a small mistake or misstep can bring the maximum penalty, but that doing something that is absolutely right in one subgroup or place could be anathema to people in another. It wouldn’t even have to be someone who has an interest in me or what I do. They just may dislike something and want to exact maximum penalty. Suddenly one is without health insurance and the ability to find work. This is why I cherish the ability to move between worlds. Not because anything I do is wrong, but because each world has its own rules, expectations, mores, and I don’t really feel that someone from one world (or someone who is simply a voyeur and is in none of them) ought to have much impact on what I do in another.
Here’s another reader with a very different reason for domain-switching:
I use different outlets for different purposes. Facebook I use similarly to everyone else, to show a positive side of my life and share it. Instagram is what I use for public posting. Anyone can look me up and see pictures of my life. I am a PhD candidate, and I like to show the more fun aspects of my research in case anyone is interested in it.
Reddit is different for me.
I experienced sexual and emotional abuse from previous partners and family members, something that my family and most friends are unaware of. This part of my life requires me to have an outlet, one that I do not want to interfere with other relationships. Anonymity provides me with safe spaces I need to reach out or to provide support to others. It has become therapeutic to have an online presence that speaks boldly about issues I don’t feel comfortable discussing otherwise.
The links that companies are forming between sites weigh heavily on me. If my postings were revealed to those I care about, it would be detrimental to my own, and perhaps others’, mental health. My abusers have been recommended to me as friends on multiple occasions. I have received messages from them a few times. At one point I made my profile impossible to find, specifically for this reason. I have had partners (now exes) that threatened to find me on reddit and read my posts.
I have been hacked, personal images have been distributed to strangers, even my SSN/fingerprint/identifying information was stolen. Eventually, I feel that my separate online identities will be connected by someone I know. The easiest solution is to stop posting, stop supporting, and stop discussing subjects that are so personal to me.
But it is not a solution I feel is right.
The curiosity and tenacity of people is a part of what made us who we are. I understand that people feel they have the need to find the man behind the mirror. But what I have observed most recently is this feeling becoming obsessive. A simple weight-loss post I saw had a large percentage of commenters declaring it a fake simply because she had different hair colors in the two photos (face was blurred). She went so far as to share a screenshot of her own camera album with multiple angles of the same image. But the train had left the station.
It made me wonder, at what point will I have to provide proof of my own experiences in order to be heard? Rubbernecking past trauma, rather than focusing on the benefits of sharing experiences, is a real issue that is rising even among the communities I am active on. When that day comes, I will have to extricate myself from an outlet that has become somewhat important to me. As it will for many people like me.
This reader is thinking of how an inability to keep worlds from colliding can hurt others:
To answer the question of why I value the ability to maintain different identities in different domains: I work with social workers around the country who work with recently released men, and have interviewed dozens of their clients. The one thing that every one of them will tell you is that you cannot focus on past mistakes. There needs to be a path forward without judgment. And the judgment part is key. There is no incentive to try to do right if you will only ever be seen as the wrong you did.
The first thing I think of now when I see some Twitter mob trying to ruin someone because of a 30-second clip with no context is, This is why we can’t have real prison reform. We love retribution. Doesn’t matter where your politics stand, we love inflicting suffering on people as long as we can justify it morally. It’s just in us, and it sucks, and it does not make anything better, particularly for the people with whom I work.
This reader acknowledges the benefits of domain-slipping, but wonders about the costs:
I admit to being a domain-slipper. I attend a small liberal-arts college, and while I still consider myself a liberal, I often find myself at odds with many on the far left of the community. I have friends whom I discuss political issues with, but I also have some with whom it is easier not to.
I find myself doing the same thing with certain members of my family who view Trump’s rise not as an existential threat but as a messianic return. Having difficult conversations is important, but they can also be, well … difficult. Domain-slipping gives us the power to leave work at work, and this can be invaluable in a world where politics would otherwise spread to all of our domains. We should not be mere avatars of our deepest -held moral or political convictions. Life is far more complex than such virtue signaling or ideological purity would allow.
However, the freedom to slip between domains and to maintain various identities is also a freedom from attachment. Such total freedom tends to lead to a Durkheimian anomie, one where a lack of consistent ethical norms and values leaves us disconnected from each other. I find it beneficial to slip between worlds, but while it is convenient, might it not also undermine our ability to communicate within a commonly understood series of norms and values? If one of the greatest problems of our times is the inability of those with political differences to communicate, might domain-slipping exacerbate the problem?
Says another reader with similar concerns:
Having lived in NYC for 16 years now and paid a lot of attention to how my fellow New Yorkers and I behave in public, I think increasingly transgressive behavior due to an inflated sense of anonymity is at the root of our woes: the transference of internet behaviors into what we used to call in the ’90s the meat world. We are losing any sense that our actions matter in real life because they don’t much matter online (despite the real damage possible from the kind of spying/reporting/“Twitter, do your thing”-ing that you detail in your piece).
We seem to be lacking, more and more, the feeling that, for example, waiting 30 seconds for the walk light is worth it to keep all traffic running smoothly, because we are small, each one of us, and “it’s only me” running the light and darting in front of oncoming cars:
How much trouble could one person cause? Or walking past a beggar in these winter days who is crying, “I’m cold!” ; after all, in a moment I will have walked past that person, and effectively his suffering disappears when I no longer see and hear it, right? He’s not my responsibility. It is troublesome that this sensibility, for lack of a better word, is dying, when on the other hand people adopt the stance of public enforcer with their phones. I don’t know how to dig out of this spot. Yes, doxxing and infringing on someone’s privacy in public space is a problem; I agree. Is that problem more urgent than a possible (probable) erosion of our fellowship with other human beings?
This reader has concerns about the dark side of domain-switching, too:
I suspect that the ability to adopt a different face, with different values and norms, in each of the different domains of our lives is also fueling unchecked, vicious, and violent internet aggression. That may be an inevitable collision between our desire to keep certain parts of our lives separated and the simple fact of the internet’s existence.
I think it’s the same mask exchanging that allows all the people that you and I know, and whom Megan McArdle recently described, to be pleasant and decent people as we know them and then to simultaneously and publicly fantasize on Twitter about feeding a teenager whom they don’t know and have never met into a wood chipper. The cognitive dissonance of those two things doesn’t cross our minds because we’ve become so adept at having these different spheres of our lives be separate and unaccountable to each other.
Maybe by separating all the darker angels of our natures into an anonymous compartment of our lives, we’ve also enabled ourselves to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that we are more virtuous than we actually are, forgetting what Solzhenitsyn pointed out, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The answer to that question may be less that we’ve destroyed the dark pieces of our hearts and more like we’ve quarantined them like a virtual machine on our home computer, partitioned from the rest of our hard drive, where we can more easily avoid thinking about it and more easily forget that it still has network access.
For some, the inability to domain-switch is stifling. A jeweler writes:
Here, in the South, religion is a biggie. I would like to post all over Facebook and Twitter my views on religion, but don’t because of wanting to keep my personal and professional lives separate. If asked, in person , I have no qualms about telling people my views, but I feel that on social media it would prove to be nonbeneficial to my job, because it’s so much easier for people to be keyboard warriors and crucify a person for having differing views from them. Truly, it’s almost as if it’s expected to denigrate those with differing views or thoughts, even those views that are from ones that you’d consider friends. In short, I keep my social-media presence to an almost ghost status because of my fear of upsetting those that I do business with and for.
For others, the ability to do so is vital, but lonely:
I consider myself to be an expert code switcher. Right now my instincts are telling me there’s no upside to sending this email from my professional email address, for instance. I’m a recovering heroin addict, and if there’s one thing you learn as an addict, it’s how to wear different masks. You show one face to co-workers, another to friends, another to cops.
Today I’m sober and manage 20 people. Obviously, I have to behave in a particular way around my employees. One of my team members recently told me they were shocked—shocked!—to find out that I smoke cigarettes. I can tell people at NA meetings I spent most of my 20s shooting up heroin, but I have to maintain entirely different personas at work, at home with my partner, and when I visit my family. It can be isolating to do so much code switching, for sure, but I also don’t want to be defined by one aspect of my past. When your entire life can be defined by one social-media misstep or past sin, you have to be be very careful about what you put out into the world. Of course, being on guard all the time is isolating in its own way.
This reader probed the relationship between domain-switching, tolerance, and privacy:
If a society could have mostly tolerant individuals, members would have less to hide from each other. Privacy is a nice stopgap in case of widespread intolerance, but its urgency diminishes the more tolerant people are. Is it easier to rein in technology or to make citizens more tolerant? I posit the latter is easier and less messy than the former. I find it preferable to a society where people feel compelled to compartmentalize and otherwise hide parts of their own selves from each other. After all, what have movements like mainstreaming sexual minorities been about if not changing society so people don’t have to suffer the ill effects of hiding parts of themselves?
This reader worries that if domain-switching is undermined, public discourse will be harmed:
I gain many things from a diversity of friends and acquaintances, and I don’t subscribe to the belief that “if someone truly loves me, they’ll accept all of me.” People are a complicated bundle of emotions, beliefs, prejudices, and desires. It’s extremely rare that someone is truly willing to accept the entire continuum of another person, and usually that spot is reserved for a spouse or long-term partner. We could even argue that no one ever truly believes another will accept every part of them, so they hide parts of themselves. It seems that divorce is likely caused by the uncovering of these elements. I rather enjoy domain-shifting; it’s fun and nice to be able to cater different aspects of my personality to different people and situations.
If we adopted a norm that disallowed domain-shifting––and I see many calls for this on social media and left-leaning websites––I believe we would start sprinting toward an intellectual version of what China is moving toward technologically. Radical elements would likely take firmer control of narrative threads without stopping to consider the end consequences. I find the idea of such a society to be pretty repulsive. In my mind, this would be the worst consequence.
If we adopted the norm, or resolidified the norm, that domain-shifting is acceptable and encouraged, we can continue to have conversations about real or perceived injustice and immorality while ridding ourselves of fear. We might risk letting unsavory individuals and their beliefs or actions slide under the table, but it is more likely to lead to discussion and understanding rather than the fearful digging-in of heals.
A reader who self-describes as “autistic-ish” writes:
Spaces opening up online were a great gift to me. Suddenly I could find conversations that do not strongly discriminate against me on the basis of age, dis/ability, married/single, parent/not, religion/nonbelief, sex, and sexual orientation. Like online, I can read all the magazines from the dentist’s office, not just those widely accepted as addressed to me. Nearly all real spaces are socially much more narrow. I only find spaces open up when I deliberately leave my details undisclosed, so then I face only the discrimination of being slightly queer in my push for so much privacy. I duck out of the definitive discrimination of being lumped in with the others who look like me. I benefit from the slack people allow to slightly foreign voices.
This next reader’s preferred domain?
I am a fan of anthropomorphics … people in this fandom are often referred to as “furries.” Many will create or recognize one or more personas, usually styled as some form of anthropomorphized creature––an alter ego, an idealized self, a representation of qualities you see in yourself, or a sort of totem animal or spirit guide … fursonas and their roles are as varied as the people within the fandom.
But fursonas also serve to compartmentalize and separate who we see ourselves to be, versus our “outside” selves. Most of us, in our online or in-person interactions with other members of the fandom, will use the names of our fursonas, consciously separating ourselves from an external identity that never seems to “fit” quite right, and recognizing each other for who we wish to be, or who we feel ourselves to be.
My workplace is progressive enough to be okay with my involvement in the furry fandom, to say nothing of my identity as a gay male. I am blessed; there are many others who are not so privileged, and rightly fear having their identities compromised. We value domain-slipping as a practical necessity. In the workplace, one might be a lawyer or a bricklayer; a fine, upstanding pillar of the community … but within the fandom, you might be something or somebody entirely different.
I’ll tell you of one fur I met.
After his death, I found out that he was a Catholic and an Army veteran, served in the Air National Guard, and ran as a Republican for statewide office. He had very good reason to keep his involvement in the fandom hidden from the outside world—can you imagine the opprobrium that would have engulfed him if that pseudonymity had been breached?
I can tell you some implications of robbing others of the right to mix or separate their identities as they see fit, because that’s a norm the furry fandom has historically held dear (though we’re as affected by the new name-and-shame social media trends as anybody else). When such a norm is valued and socially enforced, people become more open with each other. When you can let go of the “you” that is forced upon you by the expectations of the world outside, when you can reveal parts of yourself that could not be safely explored or expressed if there was any threat of them being reported back to the people in your daily life … it is incredibly freeing. It’s almost magical. That experience is usually described as a feeling of “coming home” or “finding your family.”
I can also speak to the worst consequences. In a community like the fandom, which values pseudonymity and the ability to mix or separate identities at will, it can become very difficult to track “problem people.”
Thanks to everyone who wrote to share their thoughts.