Recently, I’ve been struggling to comprehend the social ramifications of defamation, censorship and privacy laws in government and industry. While the scenario of a verbally abusive co-worker or boss is undeniably awful, and while nobody should have to put up with insults about their character, religion, race, competency, sexuality and/or personal hygiene, I can’t help but feel that restrictions designed to enforce polite behaviour are increasingly infringing on freedom of speech. Prior to the rise of the internet, I imagine there was a fairly intuitive rule of thumb when it came to bitching about colleagues, viz: don’t write anything down. Trash talk was for the pub and other such friendly gatherings, or at the very least somewhere courteously beyond earshot of the person in question. Email lead to a new caveat: keep it off the company servers. Personal accounts are personal accounts, but you never know when someone might have legitimate cause to flip through your business correspondence. Even in this instance, however, there was still a veil of privacy, in that barring an authorised, dedicated search or deliberate hacking, there was no way for the subject of the conversation to accidentally ‘overhear’ and thereby take offence.

But sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed all that. Now, employees are able to form online groups and discuss the foibles of their jobs en masse or tweet about the demands of annoying co-workers – with troubling consequences. The blogsphere, too, has created workplace turmoil, with some employers sacking staff for mentioning their jobs online. While companies are well within their grounds to worry about the release of actual business information, especially where a preemptory or unauthorised mention of same could cause genuine loss or damage, the notion of bringing a company’s reputation into disrepute simply by admitting to personal foibles and opinions is deeply troubling. Satirising a job is not the same as maligning it, and criticising management should not be a sackable offense. Nonetheless, such things are currently happening.

As a student, I never liked the idea, put about at assemblies and other such spirit-building occasions, that I was moving through life as a ‘representative’ of my school, nor that my behaviour at all times, regardless of whether I wore the uniform, was correlated to some nebulous, anachronistic notion of school pride or reputation. As a grown worker, the sentiment still holds. First and foremost, we should belong to ourselves: all other affiliations, be they professional or academic, are secondary. There’s an ugly paternalism to schools and businesses laying claim to the morality and opinions of their attendees, and this is what rankles: the notion that our individual humanity is permissable only insofar as it doesn’t contradict the party line. It’s a big, messy, multifaceted issue – slandering colleagues is different to releasing confidential data is different to criticising management is different to having a sense of humour is different to daily blogging – but it is, ultimately, the same issue. Namely: how should we act online?

In a perfect world, people wouldn’t insult each other, nor would certain personality types be incompatable. But this is not a perfect world. In an age when instantaneous, public communication has dropped the veil of privacy from personal complaint, we need to grow thicker skins and get used to living with other people’s opinions. Because what’s really throwing us for a loop isn’t the fact that people have opinions or even that they’re different from ours: it’s that, all of a sudden, we know what they are, and feel moved to respond. Companies are kidding themselves if they think that the vast majority of their employees would still work if they didn’t have to. Work is a necessary evil: get over it. Employees are kidding themselves if they think that bitching about co-workers in cyberspace is the same as bitching at the pub. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it where they can see it: simple. The law is kidding itself if it proves systematically incapable of distinguishing between serious, ongoing abuse and satire. People make jokes, and every exchange is nuanced: take it into account. Authority figures are kidding themselves if they think their position should put them beyond mockery or scrutiny. As in politics, you will be teased, disliked; your decisions will be questioned. It’s the price of being in power: live with it or step down.

But most importantly, we as a society are kidding ourselves if we think the solution to socio-digital omnipresence is to segregate our personalities. Our jobs and lives are bleeding together exactly because the two should be compatable; because people want to enjoy their work while still retaining the freedom to speak their minds. Communication should be used as a tool for social improvement, not restriction, which means compromise on both sides. And historically speaking, compromise has never involved the building of walls between different groups or ways of life.

Instead, it knocks them down.

  1. Sean Seefried says:

    Nicely written article, although I can’t agree that “compromise has never involved the building of walls”. Sure it has. You allude to it in your piece when you say that “talking down the pub” is very different to “saying it at work”. Really, all that’s happening at the moment is the gradual integration of new technologies into our lives. Some people are discovering that their opinions are a little more leaky than they might first have suspected. And over time they will adapt. New social conventions will be put in place.

    But in a way, I think the solution is to have better walls (to protect privacy) not break them all down


  2. fozmeadows says:

    While I agree that saying something at the pub is different to saying it at work, I think this is less a deliberate compromise than it is an unconscious social pragmatism: the words themselves don’t differ and the opinion doesn’t change, and yet we censor one while condemning the other. Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but if this does count as a compromise, then I’d call it a poor one, because all it does is obfuscate and punnish honesty. The best employers I’ve ever worked for have all been able to acknowledge that yes, sometimes work is tedious and boring and that even they take sickies, because nobody, no matter how much they love their job, will wake up 365 days a year dead keen on putting in a full day’s effort. The worst employers have still found their jobs tedious and boring at times and taken random days off, but have punnished their staff for even appearing to do likewise, let alone talking about it. So when I say that walls need to come down, I mean that we all need to be more honest about what our jobs mean, why we work and how they can be improved, which means tolerance for talking *about* work in a social context. Socially – and, to a certain extent, morally – we’ve lost the sense that work *should* be hard and unpleasant, otherwise it’s not work, at least in terms of our everyday culture. But most companies are yet to catch up with this; they promote things like work/life balance, then set out to hire employees who are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former.

    That’s getting away from privacy, but insofar as the digital world is concerned, I think we need to approach things like workplace tweets and Facebooking in much the same way that we approach Livejournal, ie: the fact that what you’re writing is personal doesn’t mean other people can’t see it, nor should you be surprised that they bothered to look it up in the first place. Similarly, readers shouldn’t be shocked that their friends/colleagues have opinions about them. We need to operate openly, honestly – not to diminish the notion of personal privacy, but to promote the idea that employees with visible personalities aren’t incompatable with corporate privacy.

  3. Ben D says:

    Social networking sites do have privacy settings to stop the general public from viewing what you say. Also if an employer wants to monitor your internet activities at work they must tell you they are doing so.

  4. Andre Pang says:

    Ben, most employers do have clauses in their contracts that state that all Internet activity you perform on company equipment is subject to scrutiny.

    Anyway, Foz, about your comment on political correctness, you may find this article interesting: Warning: it’s long, and it’s also extreme, but I think the premise of the article is sound.

    As for watching what you type, maybe we’ll all be taking the more Asian approach of being very cautious about anything we say. I certainly do that for my online persona :).

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