Permanent, yet ephemeral: conversing on social media platforms

Tim Hitchcock blogged about the changing platform of public discourse, and the academic’s role, in his post titled, “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.”Over the past few decades, discourse between academics and the public has transformed away from print newspapers, monographs, and journal articles, toward online interaction. Hitchcock thinks academics need to lean into this transformation, rather than fight against it—the world is changing and communication will be difficult if academics do not acknowledge the need to adapt. I agree with this point, but I want to respond to Hitchcock’s blog post because I think the advice that academics adapt to changing modes of communication is not such a simple task as moving from paper to the the keyboard.

One difference between traditional modes of communication and electronic modes of communication is the permanence of information. While journal articles and monographs, for example, retain permanence through publication, intellectual conversations that happen in person are not archived the same way. Journal articles and monographs are planned, drafted, revised, and then published—conversations happen in the moment. We have all likely heard the advice, “be careful what you post online, you can never take it back.” In other words, even if you delete a comment you posted on Facebook, the Facebook servers still have a record of your comment. Or another possibility, someone could have screenshot your comment and reposted it. Even if the reposter deletes their post, someone else may have already reposted their post.

My concern is that, if intellectual conversations that used to be in the moment and unarchived, are suddenly archivable and understood to be permanent, individuals may be less likely to engage in conversation as freely as they might in person. I worry this will happen, because they may feel that, since they have the time to sit behind their computer and makes changes before ‘speaking,’ they will feel pressure to speak perfectly. Some people, I think will take on this challenge. Good for them. But I think others may feel overwhelmed by this task, feeling they will be permanently represented by something they said at one point in time, tethering their online identity to one moment of their life. What if they change their mind?

On the flip side, conversations can be manipulated so that they are visually ephemeral. For example, some people have likely had the experience of engaging in a long conversation on Reddit or Facebook, or another online social platform, and later found that another participant in the conversation deleted their contribution to the conversation. If an individual feels that their contribution to the conversation was not appreciated or reflected accurately, or they were attacked, they can delete their contributions. Of course, it is never really deleted—Facebook or Reddit still has the data, and remember, someone could have reposted it before it was deleted. However, deleting one’s contribution to the conversation still works to conceal what they said from many other users of the social media platform.

I think that the same can be said for blogging. While blogging is not typically thought of as a social media platform, it technically is one if blogs are a place for intellectual conversations to take place. While the conversation may not happen in the same format or pace as those that happen on Facebook or Twitter, blogs can be manicured in the same way that social media conversations can.

I certainly do not think blogging should be written off given the concerns I have expressed over online conversations. However, as humans grow and adapt to our changing world, it is important that we acknowledge the changes that result from the advancements in communication—such as speed, access, and complexity; we should critique the ways our communication is stifled by these advancements, just as we should lean into and celebrate them.