Social media have democratized publishing. Now, anybody can spontaneously share their thoughts, opinions, photos, witticisms and criticisms, as well as what they ate for breakfast, with the world.

This accessibility has permitted new voices to emerge, quiet voices to be heard, and the previously unspoken to be said.

It has also enabled the proliferation of untold amounts of triviality and inanity.

And it has placed a huge burden of responsibility on individuals. Whether a person posts inappropriate information herself or somebody catches her in an act of misjudgment and documents it online, no thought, word or deed best kept within the personal sphere goes uncensured in this open, public realm.

This responsibility requires constant exercise of the brain’s executive-function skills, including judgment and emotional regulation.

As a species, we’re only moderately well equipped to deal with today’s pace of communication. Human brains take longer than the rest of our bodies to mature, with the frontal lobe—central command for executive function—coming fully online only in our mid-twenties. This means that, for 10 or so very precarious adolescent years, we are at risk of acting on hormone-driven, split-second reactions with limited chance of our own better judgment intervening.

Our frontal cortex develops at a speed best suited to earlier forms of publishing. In earlier times, widespread sharing of thoughts, viewpoints and accounts of experiences required significant investments of time, energy, intention, and in some cases wealth.

Think of the cave paintings of Lascaux, for example. These pictures of horses, bison, antelope and other animals date from 17,000 years ago—a few years before my time, and long before Mark Zuckerberg had his Brilliant Idea. The paintings of that long-ago Stone Age era, are among the earliest representations meant to share meaning with other people. Of course, modern archaeologists have no idea the paintings mean, but the images clearly were significant to their creators and their peoples.

The paintings are located deep underground, far from the nearest sources of daylight. Their creators had to plan and prepare to make them. The painters had to source, prepare and pack in minerals for the red, orange and yellow pigments. They had to carry in wood and torches for light to paint by and charcoal to paint with. The act of creating these ancient works took deliberate effort and intention. Nobody was going to go through all that work to snark pettily about so-and-so or document their bowel movements.

Even the pictographs at Cape Mudge or in East Sooke Park required time and patience for First Nations peoples to produce. No hasty reactions or inane accounts would likely endure through the laborious effort needed to carve lines into these rocks.

When writing became widespread, publication of trivial observations became more widespread. Walls within 2,000-year-old Pompeii preserve graffiti that would be considered slanderous or obscene today, but the graffiti—while it has enjoyed an unexpectedly long shelflife, thanks to Mount Vesuvious—had limited legs during its original heyday. First-Century technology kept it local and contained.

Even when movable-type printing came along, access to presses and the time it took to set type enforced a crucial delay between thinking a thought and publishing it. As well, for years, few people had cash to spare to finance the printing of insults or personal minutiae.

Exceptions exist, of course—tracts replete with lies and libel were published in the media of their day throughout time, but even they were deliberate and planned attempts to discredit others, not off-hand remarks shared by hitting Reply All and Send in too-quick succession. Diarists documented their daily lives and gossiped about others, but most of these accounts waited generations before they became widely circulated. Today, these accounts are viewed as priceless for the insights they provide into earlier private lives.

Now, we go from having a thought to publishing it in moments. With that comes a burden of responsibility to think before we hit “publish” or “post” or “send.” Is it appropriate to share this opinion? Is this information libelous or slanderous or bullying?

It’s safe enough to share what your breakfast menu. Although I may not care about it, in 200 years, somebody may consider the information priceless.


A version of this editorial appears in the October 4, 2015, Victoria Times Colonist.

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