This is the first part in a two-part post discussing the pros and cons for remaining neutral, or disengaged, online. Stay tuned for part 2 next coming next week: the case for engagement.
Now, more than ever, what you say and do online—the circles you belong to, the hashtags you use, the posts you like, the thoughts you share, the platform you use—is your first impression to the world.
Even the most private people have most likely had an email address, commented on, shared, or thumbs-up-ed a post, had a photo of themselves posted online, or had their name and identity put out on the internet by a third party.
We have entered an age where people are declaring their affiliations and memberships openly. We are waving flags for our chosen teams and furthering conversations, defending our heroes, and taking down tyrants with the touch of a button. The internet has ceased being a proprietorship of über-nerds where gaming and cat videos reign supreme, and has gone to affect real world changes across the globe.
There is an ever-present debate around how much is too much to reveal of our personal identity online. Is it better to keep as neutral as possible to avoid alienating others and sabotaging future endeavours? Or is participation the best way to survive in an online world?
The Case for Neutrality
Here are some examples of “neutral” online activities:
- avoiding posting anything controversy-adjacent
- staying silent on trending discussions
- not disclosing any private or identifying content
- keeping interaction with folks who are associated with non-neutrality to a minimum
- waiting until most of your circle has participated in something online before doing so yourself
For those grappling with the choice to stay neutral and conservative or to put yourself out there online, here are some reasons you might want to stay neutral:
Many employers and clients don’t want their brands associated with controversy (unless they’re in on it, of course). This means that your opinions and actions will most likely be seen as representative of anyone who comes up with your name in a search. If you work with a company or brand who values neutrality, you may want to monitor your online feeds to be sure you’re not rocking the boat.
If you are going to have any sort of online presence, you may want to touch base with the people in your life to see how they feel about what you post. Perhaps you want to be free to divorce your spouse without your 2,000 followers asking for details, or perhaps the hurtful tweet you didn’t think your mom would ever see somehow made its way to her, or maybe your best friend didn’t like that you snapped a pic of her newborn. Like it or not, being public online means you must accept that openness comes at the expense of privacy, and sometimes the privacy of those you love.
Having a neutral online presence means you will have a greater chance of growing and evolving as a human being without being haunted by past mistakes. How many times have you looked back at old photos and posts and thought “what the heck was I thinking?”. We’ve all said things out of ignorance and fear, defended a belief we didn’t understand fully, shared something we thought was funny but was really offensive. Neutrality now can mean a future where you aren’t forced to prove you’ve matured beyond a stupid joke taken out of context.
The biggest reason to keep an aggressively inoffensive online presence might be to keep yourself from becoming a target. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist suspicious of the government and other corporations, or you have seen too many receive death/assault/doxxing/rape threats for sharing an opinion, safety is a compelling reason to stay middle-of-the-road online.
Burnout is a common consequence of online immersion, and so are self-prescribed “social media bans” to treat it. You run into a lot of passion online, a lot of situations where you can do nothing but seethe alone with your phone or try to take breaks. For many folks, staying neutral online can be a form of self-protection; the less you put yourself out there, the fewer conversations you take part in, the more space you have to keep yourself healthy.
As we are nearly all digital citizens, and many rely on an online presence to find work, community, entertainment, and information, you may forgive a person for opting to remain disengaged. Some just have too much to lose.
While it may be impossible to disengage completely, we may start to see more and more people working actively to preserve their neutrality online.