If you look at the progression of social norms in the past two centuries, you’ll see a significant lax in the way in which we consider accepted public and private behavior. Chalk it up to the melting pot, which introduced new religious and familial perspectives into American society, or the simple evolution of human nature.
I’m more inclined to consider a handful of the overarching effects of industrialism, which enabled the economic and structural support of large populations within a metropolitan area, and the ability for an entire society to move beyond the basic necessities of a family-based “political” structure that was dominant in colonial America.
Smaller towns often limited their residents to one religion, and were far more involved in each other’s lives, for economic purposes. There wasn’t nearly as much privacy as we have today, and the scientific advances (and their subsequent adoption) catalyzed by industrialism freed up our time and presented more forms of entertainment that weren’t available to those living in colonial days.
So what’s that mean? Pretty much everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was a very involved system of checks and balances that ruled society during American colonialism, and the effect of social castration was a notion powerful enough to keep a lot of people in line. To a large extent, this still takes place today. Think back to high school where everything mattered, from your outfit to the person you dated. Even your office environment can lead to unspoken social influence, depending on your interests (which lead to topics of discussion–or lack thereof), and a number of other behavioral expressions which could inevitably lump you into one niche or another.
The word niche is inextricably linked to the current online culture and social media, because of the way in which web-based networks enable individuals to meet other like-minded individuals, and form groups from there. But as social networks become more mainstream and interwoven into each other, the likeliness of other people knowing your business increases significantly.
There are privacy settings on networks like Facebook, but even with these set in place, there are certain actions one may take without realizing the full implications. Even the mere act of reversing or modifying a particular status on a social networking profile can have the same social effect as not having had the privacy settings installed in the first place.
If you’re a college student that has enjoyed a public stream of activity flowing through Facebook, but quickly takes advantage of Facebook’s privacy settings upon graduation, your friends will notice the limited amount of information flowing from your profile, and perhaps even their restricted access to your information all together. If you’ve mistakenly said something on Twitter and would like to delete this tweet, the statement is gone from your Twitter stream but may still be present across the various accounts (i.e. FriendFeed) that redistribute your content.
As syndication and redistribution of content becomes more commonplace amongst social networking sites, the ability to remain aware of the ripples of each of your actions is weakened, and it becomes a lot more difficult to maintain whatever online persona you may like to portray, even if only for a 10 minute time span. If there’s someone on AIM you don’t want to talk to, you can go invisible on AIM and GChat, but did you forget to change your auto-start Skype settings and mark yourself as invisible there as well? If you’ve told everyone, including your coworkers, that your sick and won’t be available online for the day, will your co-workers wonder what’s going on when they see the last 10 songs you favorited on last.fm?
It may not seem like it, but these things have a growing effect on people’s behavior, whether they encourage people to use privacy settings, or deter people from taking certain action all together. The act of admitting that your whirlwind romance didn’t work out by changing your relationship status on Facebook has actually led some users to disable their Facebook accounts all together.
It’s an interesting effect that social media has, that very much mimics the close-quarter environment that influenced behavior in the days of American colonialism. What will be quite interesting to watch is the way in which social software is deeloped in response to larger social implications such networks have.