Social Outrage in the Fourth Dimension

Most of today’s social media scandals emerge in one of a few ways.  Either there’s something recently posted that’s scandalous, and triggers an uproar. Or, there’s something hidden in the archives of someone’s social media channel, which is resurfaced to today’s more unforgiving eyes.  (e.g., Kevin Hart and the Emmys controversy.)

In other cases, people get in trouble for engaging online with someone (or something) incensory.  A politically incorrect tweet was retweeted; a salacious Instagram post was liked; an upstanding person is following someone with extremist views.  These sorts of scandals half a pretty short half life; it’s easy to chalk them up to user error (“I didn’t mean to do that!”), or redirect the blame (“It was my millennial staffer!”)

In an effort to stay out of flames of the culture war, many people are proactively scrubbing their accounts.  Unfollowing people that make for questionable associates; unliking tweets that might be hard to explain later; sometimes altogether shutting down their social media accounts.  With enough foresight, this approach can work reasonably well.  There’s technically still record out there, on some server somewhere, of what you did; but, in all likelihood, the surface area for an unwelcome digital scandal has been significantly reduced.  

It’s hard to imagine that things will stay this simple.

Think of a popular paradigm that exists today: Apple’s Time Machine application on the Mac, which gives you the ability to “go back in time” to previous versions of a given file.  This is possible through local indexing and copying, which happens on set intervals (or in response to specific triggers).  Now think about an analogous service, that’s capturing the transactional state of every public social media account, from inception onwards.  Kind of like of the Wayback Machine, but on steroids.

This is understandably unnerving - but feels inevitable.  People will need to assume that there will be a record of every public message, regardless of subsequent deletion; or of every person they’ve followed, even if they’ve subsequently unfollowed them.  Certain folks, like Jack Dorsey, believe that the eventual pervasiveness of blockchain technology will make online interactions truly permanent. 

I don’t think that’s necessary.  You simply need an aggressive extension of paradigms we’ve already seen work in more constrained systems.  If and when this sort of deep-scraping begins to escalate, I’d imagine that platforms like Twitter and Facebook will introduce new limitations on their APIs, and throttle the ability for snooping agents to build this sort of temporal knowledge base.

At that point, though, the retrospective ability isn’t gone; it’s just been constrained to the hands of the platforms themselves; the same as it is today.  Will it be an acceptable compromise to trade the ability for third-parties to deep-scrape public content for even tighter “stewardship” by the platforms?  Unclear; though it’s hard to imagine that this sort of API lockdown would hold water in the EU’s regulatory bodies, over any reasonable period of time.

At which point there’s maybe a regulatory compromise: users can get access to the “deep” history of their social interactions, but nobody else.  At this point, a user’s account becomes an even juicier target for pernicious actors.  You don’t just access to someone’s direct messages, but also every prior version of their follower/connection graph, and every piece of content they might’ve withdrawn association with.

Of course, this sort of escalation is contingent on people continuing to value what other people are posting, and who they’re associating with.  This seems likely, given the arc of human history and whatnot.  There’s a vicious tribalism that relishes in social crucifixion.  But there’s also an emerging, redemptive counterweight: in some cases, we’re accepting that people can grow beyond their online mistakes.

There’s a social realm that exists between hollow apathy and searing inquisition; it’s probably not a fixed position.  How can we incentivize people to stay in that realm, and to apply minimum necessary force when addressing social infractions?  

A question for the times.