The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon

I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence.  I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.

One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.

It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.

The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.

And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for.

The latest example to come to my attention (and I am sure there are many examples that I have missed) concerns the science fiction and fantasy publisher, Tor Books. Its creative director, Irene Gallo, made some comments on her personal Facebook page about a culture war that is currently raging within the SF/F community. Those who disagreed with her began lobbying the Tor senior management to rebuke Gallo and distance themselves from her comments, and last week, Tom Doherty, the publisher at Tor, did just that.

Many people, including myself, are shocked that he had effectively thrown Gallo “under the bus” for writing opinions on her personal Facebook page, including saying things that a demonstrably true.

The rebuke is annoying on another level, however. The campaign against Gallo began because of comments made on what is obviously a personal web space. Yet Doherty wrote:

Tor employees including Ms. Gallo, have been reminded that they are required to clarify when they are speaking for Tor and when they are speaking for themselves.

In the context, this is ridiculous. A personal Facebook page is obviously a place where someone speaks for themselves and not their employer, and anyone who claims that there is some kind of ambiguity here is being disingenuous.

Nevertheless, willfull ignorance and social media illiteracy are with us and it would be nice to have some tools to ease the burden that such antagonism places on our discussions.

We need a new icon

Icons and symbols are incredibly useful in all areas of life, pointing us in the direction of where we want to be and quickly signalling the nature of the object in out hands. Online and in publishing, icons are incredibly useful in immediately establishing certain things about what we are reading. The copyright symbol is a good example of this. Adding a © symbol to your work saves you from repeating thousands of words of terms and conditions and a century or more of accumulated jurisprudence. In recent years artists have also had the option of adding Creative Commons icons to their work instead. These logos perform a similar function to the copyright symbol.

A very recent introduction to our global icon set is Twitter’s blue ‘verified’ logo, a symbol that creates trust and saves everyone time that would otherwise be wasted tediously double-checking what is posted on the platform.

It is now time for a “personal opinions” icon. Millions of people like Irene Gallo could add the symbol to their personal social media accounts. Ideally, the symbol would link to some standardised “these are my personal views” text that would insure both the individual and their employers from being dragged into something that should not concern them.

What would such an icon look like? That is a challenge for graphic designers. It needs to work at extremely small resolutions. My initial idea was simply a shape with a letter ‘p’ in it, but that does not translate across cultures. Perhaps a speech bubble with a face or head inside?

I urge designers to take up this challenge. A “personal opinions” icon will not eliminate flame wars or public shaming, but I think it would provide comfort to a lot of people, permitting them to speak and write with greater freedom.

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