To allow others to think about us in whatever way they feel like — perhaps to laugh at us, perhaps to dismiss us — is a huge loss of control. So why do we allow it? What is the attraction of it? I think that it’s the increase in control we get in return. Social media has enabled the Great Control Swap. And it is happening right now, beneath our notice.
The first baby step toward the Great Swap was the shift from phone calls to texts. A phone interaction requires participants to be “on the same time,” which entails negotiations over entrance into and exit from the conversation...A text or email interaction, by contrast, liberates the parties so that each may operate on their own time. But the cost comes in another form of control: data....text-based communication requires stationary words...they leave a trail.
We understood from the start that this form of socializing — like an affair without physical contact — was shallower than the other, more demanding kind. We were prepared to accept that trade-off, but failed to grasp that we were trading away more than depth. We were also trading away a kind of control.
All of us have a desire to connect, to be seen. But we live in a world that is starting to allow us to satisfy that desire without feeling the common-sense moral strictures that have traditionally governed human relationships. We can engage without obligation, without boredom and, most importantly, without subjecting our attention to the command of another. On Twitter, I’m never obligated to listen through to the end of someone’s story.
The immense appeal of this free-form socializing lies in the way it makes one a master of one’s own time — but it cannot happen without a place. All that data has to sit somewhere so that people can freely access it whenever they wish. Data storage is the loss of control by which we secure social control: Facebook is our faithless mistress’s leaky inbox.
When we alienate our identities as text data, and put that data “out there” to be read by anyone who wanders by, we are putting ourselves into the interpretive hands of those who have no bonds or obligations or agreements with us, people with whom we are, quite literally, prevented from seeing “eye to eye.” People we cannot trust.
The Great Control Swap buys us control over the logistics of our interactions at the cost of interpretive control over the content of those interactions. Our words have lost their wings, and fallen to the ground as data.