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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

hello, permission to not speak?

Somewhere along with the rise of the like button, the idea of strength in (follower) numbers, and the need to turn every hobby into a business page, there came an idea that planted itself deep into our understanding of human nature.

This idea has encouraged many of us to look at our lives as a cycle of production and consumption. In a world run by products, we sit pretty on the throne as a textbook example. We’re in loop until we reach a pre-defined destination. We repeat the same level over and over again until ding! We get notified that the level has been cleared. The screen fades to black and we’re back in a new setting, waiting to find out what secret item we’ll need to travel the ends of the earth to get. We’re basically an algorithm. Relatively easy to control, easy to train, easy to keep within certain parameters based on a certain set of criteria that defined failure.

I guess you could say we create products in our image. It's not products that act like humans, we've just always acted like products. We treat ourselves like a scalable business model — which can be extremely beneficial when applied to certain aspects of our lives, but it must be approached with caution and balanced with a sense of awareness that extends beyond ourselves.

Anyway, what is this idea that could have been so detrimental and dystopian to our human identity? It’s simple. It’s our obsession with public opinion. Our human algorithm begs us to keep going until we've gained approval from public opinion, whether that's at home, in school, in the office, or online. When we digress, our value takes a hit.

In a previous blog, I talked about our need for validation in digital realms. I packaged our complicated online relationships into something called the audience. The audience, being an ever-present community of voices that we try to impress or be a part of. It's this same obsession with public opinion that drives the audience forward.

I'm not writing this to dismiss the idea of being opinionated and openly sharing views with strangers and unfamiliar communities. In fact, this form of honest and brave communication has moved mountains in regard to social progress and political productivity. I'm writing this to point out a fundamental problem in how we use public opinion to measure worth and what that does to the quality of our conversations.

How much is an opinion worth?

The value of an opinion has skyrocketed. The term 'influencers' can no longer be taken lightly as it's become something more than just a 'social media thing.' The influencer marketing market is expected to be worth more than $15 billion by 2022 with over 80% of marketers using some sort of influencer strategy to drive growth. With TikTok slowly taking over the influencer marketing reigns from Instagram, nano influencers (influencers with under 1000 followers) with less scripted content are every brand's new target for higher engagement — the volume of available opinions to be monetized has significantly increased.

Social media, arguably being the most accessible form of communication and news, can no longer be confined to a screen. Influencers drive revenue for corporations and services that impact our day-to-day lives. Influence mobilizes for causes as large as calling out racial injustice and impacting legislation. The role of an influencer is to shift public opinion toward the favor of something else, and it's a powerful role to play in our world today. This exactly why it's so sought after.

And that's completely okay.

But somewhere along with the rise of the like button, the idea of strength in follower numbers, and the need to turn every hobby into a business page, we've lost the plot and become transactional. I give you a version of myself that you enjoy watching or listening to, and in return, you give me your positive opinions, your time, and your attention.

There is a floating assumption that capability or subject matter expertise can only be found in the loudest voices. What comes out of this is a saturated space for a discussion filled with people shouting over each other. Worst of all, it blindly fills most of these spaces with opinions that hold no value.

We've decided that an opinion is needed for everything because we crave giving our voice some sort of value at all times. We feel a sense of responsibility to comment on anything another person does or says. It's a doubled-edged sword that causes just as much harm as it does good.

From a broad perspective, we've taken accountability a lot more seriously being a part of one connected global community. We want to help each other do better by pointing out the wrongs and getting public buy-in to drive wheels of change.

But when you zoom in a little closer, how we perceive accountability has become a blurrier line that is easier to overstep. If we have a problem with someone or something, we've programmed ourselves to think the best way to solve it is by being the loudest in the room.

What we haven't solved yet is how to best deal with those who perpetrate negativity by doing the exact same thing.

How do we give society a uniform scale to determine what we consider a problem and what people should say about it? How do we do this without getting our feet wet with political affiliation or religions that uphold their own benchmarks of morality? How do we show people what is right and what is wrong?

The truth is, I think we've taken advantage of our freedom to speak. Opinions have become weaponized as leverage over someone else. A way to say "I'm right" or "You don't know anything." We're so used to sharing, and viewing, and commenting on the lives of others that we've become accustomed to a false sense of right to include ourselves in the business of others.

We think it's acceptable — or better yet, some even consider it a favor — to reach out to strangers and feed them opinions before considering impact and most importantly, context.

Context collapse

As a writer, I've always valued social media as a space for me to express myself through words in a spontaneous and authentic way. I may not have the energy to write 1000-word posts every single day, but pushing out a bunch of 100-character sentences a day was a pretty great way to get things off my chest. In a sense, Twitter was therapeutic because I was able to consume content and react to content in real-time while all my thoughts were fresh.

Twitter thrives off of opinion. The platform laces comical takes and heavy public discourse seamlessly through some pretty great UX and algorithms that keep you hooked on conversations. It gives its users real-time visibility into conversations happening all around you and designs an experience that allows users to easily jump in and share what they think.

Pair that with an infinite scroll timeline and you have a perfect formula to keep users voicing their opinions in an instantaneous way. It's this reactionary nature of Twitter (and all social media platforms) that makes it easy for users to miss the context that each tweet may have — context that can be associated with something you may not be able to find or determine from their public profile. When everyone rushes to share their opinion, caught in a loop that tempts them to do so, nobody stops to get to know each other or the stories that may drive differing opinions.

I keep my Twitter account pretty lowkey since I've turned it into somewhat of a diary. I never held too much back from it, so anyone who looked through my tweets would be able to get a good idea of who I was from a surface-level perspective — like how you would get to know someone at a party after a couple of drinks.

One day I lost track of how connected this personal diary of mine was to the rest of the world, thanks to a perfectly crafted algorithm. I came across a tweet that angered me because I believed it painted a false assumption of international students in the United States. It was right at the peak of COVID-19, as the US government buckled down on restrictions that left many international students stranded and confused in a country that was doing little to get the pandemic under control.

I reacted in a fury, quoting the tweet and giving nobody, in particular, a piece of my mind. I was venting, directing my anger toward this user who I didn't really view as a person at that point in time. I didn't follow this person, I didn't know this person's name, I didn't even click into this person's profile. All I saw was a comment that was a part of my feed, and I shared my opinion on a whim without much thought.

The next thing I knew, I had become a Voodoo doll to a group of students who took my tweet entirely out of context. I soon realized I had taken the user's original tweet out of context as well.

I apologized, but by then it was too late to explain where I came from. The user did not want to hear it, and neither did the user's friends. They didn't want to know why I said the things I said, and they didn't care about the emotional triggers I felt that led me to react the way I did. All they saw was my one reactionary opinion, and they made their conclusion about me as a person.

I was at a loss. I didn't fully realize the fragility of context on social media until that moment. I didn't fully recognize that lack of context in the first place — or I did and I took it for granted. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that they didn't want to listen to my explanation, and then I realized I didn't give them the same privilege from the start either.

I reacted first and gathered context later. They punished me with a narrative they thought I deserved. If you look at your social media feeds, you'll notice this vicious cycle on loop in every thread or reply section.

When opinions are treated as a form of currency, the collapse of context in conversations is inevitable.

For social media platforms, opinions mean user activity and engagement, which ultimately drives profit.

For users like me, an opinion is mobilized into a measure of social validation. Would I have been inclined to toss a reactionary opinion if I knew nobody would agree with me or retweet or like my comment? Would that user have been inclined to circulate my tweet across their network to mobilize people toward my profile? We were both caught up in our own circles, thrilled to be the loudest in the room.

But did we get anything out of sharing our opinions? Did we conclude our argument with a conclusion that called for unity and understanding considering how we were arguing about injustice?

No, we didn't. In fact, the user's anger toward me probably fed into their false assumptions even more.

Permission to not speak

Lately, I've been choosing to take a step back and reevaluate my intentions with my opinions. I'm both curious and exhausted — curious to see what I'd miss by not being so caught up in opinion wars online, and exhausted from watching countless conversations unfold before my eyes in such unproductive and uncompassionate ways.

As a journalism student, I conditioned myself to be vocal on social platforms and to take on a responsibility to inform, express my agreement and disagreement, and to always be tuned in. I found a great sense of satisfaction in sharing my thought processes openly and feeling a sense of community when my opinions resonated with people I knew and didn't know. I was guilty of measuring my subject matter expertise by how loud my voice was and how strong my opinions were because I grew up with the idea that those who were quiet were always left behind, forgotten, and ignored.

Many of us have been taught that not sharing an opinion is cowardice. If you don't raise your hand in class, your teachers aren't going to care about you. If you don't argue in the workplace, your boss isn't going to take you seriously. Yes, there is truth to both of these scenarios and I can attest to that. But I don't think we've unpacked these assumptions enough.

To this, I say: Hello, permission to not speak?

We don't spend enough time talking about the right time and place to share opinions, the substance that an opinion should hold, the context that must be present before an opinion is made, and the importance of respecting other voices in the room before shouting out selfishly to the heavens.

To observe the world quietly at times is not a measure of inactiveness, but is actually the most thoughtful form of participation. We need to embrace the permission to not speak so we can hear each other better and form opinions that can lead to something. Something good, something different, something to prove that we've learned to do better.

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