Selective Filtering and the Spectacle of Virtual Free Speech

December 26, 2020

Photo by Kat Jayne on

“No is a complete sentence.” – Anne Lamott

In order to remain civilized, we have a social contract encouraging the necessary development of healthy boundaries. A boundary marks a limit: geographical spaces, cultural spaces, interpersonal and psychological spaces all include boundaries delineating the manner in which space is conceptualized and utilized. Violating those boundaries is an exercise in deviance, and where some have a difficult time both setting and maintaining boundaries, as well as respecting the boundaries of others, it also marks a level of social dysfunction.

Some boundaries are conspicuous: we don’t threaten others with violence, we don’t engage in harmful felonious activities, and we don’t encourage others to do either of those things without consequence.  What about less menacing social behaviors that can also be terribly inappropriate? At what point do people begin to ignore the social boundaries established for material relationships when they engage other human beings in the virtual world?

Some people will engage virtual relationships in the same manner they engage real relationships in the public sphere: their behavior does not noticeably deviate with regard to personal revelations and conflict management. Others are more willing to reveal opinions, character flaws, and engage combative discourse in the virtual public sphere than they ever would in the real world. And for some, their interpersonal dysfunctions become broadcast across virtual public space because the opaque landscape of the virtual world further hinders their ability to determine social distance for governing the boundaries of appropriate public revelations.

Cognizant adults generally do not reveal private and sensitive interpersonal turmoil in public spaces without experiencing a level of exposure that, depending on the perceived deviance of the behavior being exposed, lends itself to a relative sense of shame. Shame normally evokes a conditioned response of behavioral extinction.

In other words, they don’t do it. They could do it, but they don’t. Most wouldn’t even dream of doing it. They control impulses with unpleasant associations and do not engage the behavior, often as a simple matter of subconscious recourse or a conditioned response.

People with cognitive and/or behavioral issues, including an inability to actualize and respect boundaries, reveal inappropriate personal matters in public spaces.

It shouldn’t be as easy to display your dysfunction like the dirty laundry in your bathroom selfies, but apparently for some, it is a daily imperative. I see inappropriate virtual behavior regularly on social media with varying levels of spectacle. Most of it, I ignore, as one primary impetus for the behavior is attention-seeking: giving it attention just feeds the repetitious dysfunction by rewarding it.

While I prefer to utilize a process referred to as “tactical ignoring” for most of these situations, sometimes I just can’t ignore it. It causes a pain in the right side of my head just above my eye, arousing a compulsory demand to inflict a complementary pain upon someone who desperately needs it.

Virtual spaces often share the publicity of the “public” space without offering the same level of shame associated with questionable public displays in the real world. Manufacturing spectacle is easier online because the social consequences are equivocal and thereby truly innocuous. The virtual stage requires less courage than the exposure of material reality: there’s an imaginary component to virtual space that permits people to forget they are actually revealing themselves to humanity.

I realize it will help very few who actually engage in boorish and discourteous public displays, but just in case one only behaves this way simply because someone forgot to teach you otherwise, let me be clear: it is NOT agreeable to vomit your sensitive personal shit onto social media spaces for all three hundred of your friends or followers to read (and their friends as well, if your friends with loose privacy settings also comment on or share your post). Not all of your virtual friends need to experience the ongoing maladjustment and interpersonal conflict occurring in your life.

Get a journal or a therapist. Learn how to filter. Talk to a close friend or relative. Vet some of that shit in a word doc or scribble it with a crayon on paper from your recycling bin. Hell, get a blog if you really must heedlessly perform, but please understand that social media platforms are really not the place for evidence of your personality disorders.

The people who support your right to “post whatever you want,” even when it’s something you know should be a private matter, are enabling assholes; and those enabling assholes are not the people you should mind when determining how best to conduct yourself in public spaces. Sometimes, inappropriate behavior should be discouraged, especially if the behavior is worthy of judgment and scorn. So, while you do have a right to post whatever you want on your social media account, please understand that you do not have an unmitigated right to do so without recourse. There may very well be consequences, some of which the offending figure will undoubtedly dislike, and thereby routinely provokes an argument about the right to be an asshole in public spaces.

When you have notable problems understanding how the “private” parts of our lives are delineated and handled in a public space, subsequently resent the feedback you receive for putting your shit out there for the world to see, I have to ask what you really expected. You wanted a response. If you didn’t like the responses to your inappropriate sharing in public spaces, that’s probably tough shit. You did it for the attention. You did it to dump your shit on the world. You did it to plead your case. You did it as a declaration of innocence and deniability. You did it to stroke your ego, to justify your attitude, to assuage your guilty conscience. You did it to passive-aggressively attack others or to appeal to a larger voice of public opinion for support and sympathy. You did it to garner an audience. You put yourself on the virtual stage and performed your chosen role for the virtual world. You did it for YOU: a mercurial and maladjusted you.

Once you unleash a boorish performance on the public, the production takes on a life of its own; the dissolute posturing spreads like a highly contagious disease amongst the most benighted and philistine virtual loudmouths. It’s disheartening to see that many assholes.

The repetition of poor behavior and clear lack of social boundaries streamed through a virtual news feed produces a sense of longing for the one thing that cannot be accomplished online, but may be the only thing that would keep the immature, rude, and arrantly shameless from posting their inappropriate drama on social networking sites: punishment.

Since using violence to deal with conflict is objectionable, protracted and discursive censure is as close as you can actually get to putting a virtual foot in the ass of problematic social transgressors. Regrettably, social shaming in the virtual world does not have the same impact and outcomes as in the real world: I despair endlessly searching for the manner in which to effectively extinguish pernicious commonplace melodrama.

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