Does caution still trump chaos on social media?
In 2016, we released the results of a social media conduct survey, which explored topics such as the First Amendment, social media controversy, and professional online behavior. Needless to say, a lot has happened in the social media world since then...
Two years ago our white label SEO company first asked people about one of the biggest topics in the cyber universe: social media conduct. The survey revealed that a lot of Americans disagreed about freedom of expression in social media. And despite the outsize role social media plays in our daily lives, our 2018 Social Media Conduct survey shows that an incredible 70% of people remain totally unaware of how their social media posting applies to their First Amendment rights.
Why revisit the survey now? Since 2016, we've seen a colossal increase in attention paid to social media behavior by politically powerful people. Yet despite all of the news focusing on controversial presidential tweets, our new survey shows that the typical American is actually getting more cautious in their social media behavior.
If you want to safely navigate the social media world -- or even use it to your advantage -- then you need to understand the norms that shape our relationship to it. And to that end, our 2018 Social Media Conduct survey shows a clear trend.
More people are playing it safe on social media...
In 2016, 34.6% of respondents said they would continue to post things on social media that could be a turnoff to employers because their social media accounts were private. Only 30% of respondents said the same in 2018. Likewise, in 2016, 31% of respondents said they "never" posted content about "divisive" issues online, compared to 34% in 2018. These aren't big swings, but virtually all of the questions we asked showed the exact same trend -- a two to five point swing towards more cautious online behavior.
Each year there are more platforms, soapboxes, podiums, and apps from which we can blast every tidbit of our lives and opinions. And since our behavior and speech online can have real world consequences, it is in everyone's best interest to learn about society's ever-evolving social media norms.
“Silence is a true friend who never betrays.” -Confucius
Doesn't the First Amendment protect my social media speech?
Our White Label SEO 2018 Social Media Conduct Survey revisited several of the same questions just to observe the changes in opinion over the last couple years. Most of the data and questions revolve around whether or not people think that what they say on social media is protected by their First Amendment rights, as well as the impact that their social media use had on employment, both current and potential. What was clear in 2016 was that a large percentage of people weren’t sure how the First Amendment worked online.
Do you believe that getting fired because of a social media post is an infringement of First Amendment rights?
- Yes: 41.2%
- No: 28.3%
- Unsure: 30.4%
- Yes: 37.5%
- No: 29.7%
- Unsure: 32.7%
- Yes: -3.7%
- No: +1.4%
- Unsure: +2.3%
- In 2016, 71.6% of people in our survey weren’t aware of how social media posting applies to their First Amendment rights.
- In 2018, 70.2% of people in our survey remain unaware of how social media posting applies to their First Amendment rights.
This result shows that while social media is an increasingly important part of our lives, most of us don't fully understand the intersection of social media expression and First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment protects individual speech from being interfered with or censored by the government, but it doesn’t protect us from being reprimanded by private entities. Like, say, your boss.
This is problematic for people who think they reserve the right to have their speech protected regardless of where they’re speaking or posting. As many private citizens and celebrities alike have learned the hard way, if you say something controversial online, you won’t have the FBI knocking your door down, but you better believe you’ll see an immediate response from individuals, corporations, and private organizations with proverbial torches and pitchforks in hand.
In lay terms, if you’re openly speaking ill of your employer, they have every right to fire you. If you decry your First Amendment rights being infringed upon, you’ll be told to complain about it on whatever social media platform got you there in the first place. The fact is, you have the right to say whatever you want online as a private citizen. But here's the kicker: you should do so with the full knowledge and recognition that equally private (and oftentimes public) consequences are completely inbounds. In other words: Complaining about your job won't get you arrested or censored, but it may get you fired.
Fortunately, most people are learning this lesson. In our first social media conduct survey, about 8% of respondents admitted they criticized their employer or coworkers on social media. This year, just 6% said the same.
The main takeaway here is that silence is your ally, followed by decency and common sense. If you aren’t sure whether or not something you’re about to say or post on social media is wholly above reproach, don’t post it. This will never betray you.
You speak your brand
It’s strange to think of yourself as a brand, but in our White Label SEO universe, we've learned that many digital marketing lessons can be applied to you personal digital life. Think of your favorite brands. They have social media channels that present their company in the voice they want to be heard by the public. The goal is consistency of message to everyone who might be listening. In the same way, how you present yourself online will affect how people think of you, and the stakes are very real. The government isn’t standing by, waiting for your favorite fast food restaurant to tweet something offensive. But the 1.9 million people who follow them will care, and they’ll direct their responses and business accordingly.
This is, of course, an example, but the concept remains valid. People tend not to think of themselves as a brand, though the idea will help them more appropriately tailor their social media actions. Families, strangers, employers, recruiters, friends, anyone who can stumble across your social media profiles will see whatever image you put forward. Many people don’t worry about how they present themselves on social media and feel wronged when it negatively affects them. An employer may not want to hire you if you brand yourself as a hothead. You might get fired if you disparage the company you work for. If the way you’ve presented yourself (your personal brand) doesn’t vibe with the organizations you wish to be (or already are) affiliated with, there may be consequences.
Social media is changing the English language
With each passing year, more of us drop the pretense that proper grammar is necessary on social media. In fact, the digital communication technology we use is changing grammar and the English language for good. Not only are people more likely to "frequently" use misspellings, slang, and text abbreviations on social media, but the number of people who say they "never" use these verbal shortcuts has dropped by 5%.
This March, Merriam-Webster added a number of "interjections and respellings [to the dictionary], in part because communication via electronic text increasingly uses approximations of speech, including hmm, ooh mm-hmm, and, welp, welp." Previous additions in 2018 included other instances of internet slang such as "hangry," "snowflake," and "mansplaining." In unexpected ways, social media is shaping the world.
How will the cookie continue to crumble?
Social media is a valuable source of the information we see and digest on a daily basis. Oftentimes, this source has to be scrutinized such that appropriate conclusions may be made from a place where quite literally anything can be said. Most importantly, we’re going to need to see an increase in the care we take in posting, sharing, and exercising our right to free speech.
No amount of speech, regardless of the content, is beyond the judgements of private citizens and organizations. Content accountability is something that should be widely practiced by individuals and companies alike. When you’re surfing the internet or watching the news, observe how much social media affects how the world is being shaped and the individuals shaping it. Remember that you’re in control of your self presentation too.
Social media norms are changing fast, and as they do, silence is the friend who will never betray you. Billions of people exercise their perceived right to free speech, but a very wise few exercise the sound of silence.