Social media: Orwell’s 1984 versus 2014

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four presents an iconic vision of a dystopian future, where technology is utilised to monitor and control the masses.

Remarkably, the book was actually published in 1949 – decades before it’s namesake. But despite being written over 60 years ago the themes in the book have never been more relevant.

Big brother is watching

Nineteen Eighty-Four is the original source for the term “Big Brother”. In the book, Big Brother is the omniscient party leader who is often spoken about, but never seen. Every home has a telescreen through which people are monitored. Any undesirable actions are reported directly to the Thought Police… with unfortunate consequences.

What would Orwell think today, if he knew that the idea of Big Brother had turned into a popular reality TV game show, with versions across the globe?

But the truth is, in 2014, we’re all watching… and posting and tweeting.

To share or not to share

Privacy is something that naturally concerns anyone who uses social media.

There are two kinds of social media users: exhibitionists who want to share every tiny detail of their life and are happy the more people know about them and voyeurs who prefer to watch and listen but are reluctant to share themselves.

Of course, as movie director of Transformers and Armageddon Michael Bay found out recently, even if you’d rather not share, the Internet probably will.

Each platform has a range of privacy settings to control what you share and with whom, but it’s easy to forget that your boss follows you on Instagram until they like that photo of you in your Halloween costume.

Blurred lines

We’re friends with some of those we work with, so naturally you might also be friends with them on social media. But the news is rife with examples of employees whose actions on social media put their jobs at risk.

We have a very simple social media policy at iiNet where we rely on staff to use their good judgement and common sense when posting. Such a policy can’t be too prescriptive given that you can’t really foresee every possible circumstance, and when a new social media platform is being released every day (or so it seems).

Besides, we want our staff to be online and active in the social media space from Whirlpool to Twitter and everything in between – we are a telecommunications company after all.

News = truth?

The main character of Nineteen Eighty-Four works in a government department called the Ministry of Truth. Ironically, staff members are responsible for constantly rewriting records and altering photographs, creating a new version of history.

But in 2014 – where do you find the truth? The advent of social media means that news can spread like wildfire, whether it’s true (Paul Walker dies in a car crash) or not (Charlie Sheen gets married, again).

Even traditional news sources (like newspapers and magazines) are increasingly turning towards social media for breaking news and eyewitness accounts. We are all potential reporters, photojournalists and cameramen but when news breaks so fast – who checks the facts? One blossoming opportunity is crowdsourcing. Wikipedia is one of the best-known examples of a community of volunteers maintaining a widely used resource.

I believe one of the reasons why Twitter is so popular is that it’s a verified truth right from the source. (You can tell if a Twitter account is official from the little blue tick in their profile.)

The political and revolutionary wave that swept through the Arab world – known as the Arab Springowed a lot to social media and digital technologies. It allowed individuals to express and share their views, even when it contradicted those in power. And it gave insight into what was really happening on the ground, without government censorship or intervention.

I think Orwell would be amazed at the world of 2014, the amount of information that we freely share and how fast it can travel across the globe. And perhaps he would have seen that “the final, indispensable, healing change” could come from individuals with the power to communicate with each other.