What is Social Cooling?

Social cooling refers to the idea that if “you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior.” And the massive amounts of data being collected, especially online, is exaggerating this effect. This may limit our desire to speak or think freely thus bringing about chilling effects on society—in other words, “social cooling.”

Here’s a summary of how this works:

1.  Your data is collected and scored. Then data brokers use algorithms to reveal thousands of private details about you—friends and acquaintances, religious and political beliefs, educational background, sexual orientation, reading habits, personality traits and flaws, economic stability,  etc. This derived data is protected as corporate free speech.

2. Your digital reputation may affect your opportunities. Facebook posts may affect job chances of getting or losing a job, bad friends may affect the rate of your loan, etc. These effects are independent of whether the data is good or bad.

3. People start changing their behavior to get better scores which have disparate outcomes. Social Cooling describes the negative side effects of trying to be reputable online. Some of the negative effects are:

a) Conformity – you may hesitate to click on a link because you fear being tracked. This is self-censoring, which has a chilling effect. You fear choosing freely.

b) Risk-aversion –  When physicians are scored, those who try to help sicker patients have lower scores than those who avoid such patients because sicker patients have higher mortality rates.

c) Social rigidity – Our digital reputations limit our will to protest. For instance, Chinese citizens have begun to get “social credit scores,” which score how well-behaved they are. Such social pressure is a powerful form of control.

4) As your weaknesses are mapped, you become increasingly transparent. This leads to self-censorship, conformity, risk-aversion, and social rigidity becoming normal. No longer is data a matter of simple credit scores.

All of this leads to questions like: When we become more well-behaved, do we also become less human? What does freedom mean in a world where surveillance is the dominant business model? Are we undermining our creative economy because people fear non-conformity? Can minority views still inform us?

5) The solution? Pollution of our social environment is invisible to most people, just like air pollution and climate change once were. So we begin by increasing awareness.  But we should act quickly, as data mining and the secrets it reveals is increasing exponentially.

(Example – I have an advanced degree. This simple piece of data predicts that: I’m unlikely to be a Republican; I know the difference between the journalistic standards of the New York Times or the Washington Post and those of Fox “News,” Breitbart, etc.; I don’t believe in alien abductions or faked moon landings; I know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt; I’m less likely to be religious than most; I probably don’t drive a truck; etc. All that from just one bit of data, and some of those inferences might be mistaken. Imagine what else others know—or think they know—about you and me?)

6) Conclusion 

a) Data is not the new gold, it is the new oil, and it damages the social environment.

b) Privacy is the right to be imperfect, even when judged by algorithms.

c) Privacy is the right to be human.


My resource for this brief summary is https://www.socialcooling.com/index.html. The site has this note: “Feel free to re-use content, it’s all under a CC-BY 4.0 License.”

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14 thoughts on “What is Social Cooling?

  1. Certainly we are facing a radically new social environment in which our every action is recorded. This has already proved injurious to some people whose comments on social media have had horrid consequences. People are indeed learning to be more circumspect in their public behavior.

    Some of the injustices that arise from the explosion of personal information arise from too little information, not too much. The case of the physicians who take on riskier patients is a good example. Knowing the results of their work — how many patients died — is only part of the information about the physician. Knowing the full story — that these physicians accepted more difficult cases — produces a more accurate picture. Moreover, there are financial incentives to get a more accurate picture. A provider of doctors’ insurance who looks only at the survival rate will turn down a risk-taking physician. But a provider of doctors’ insurance who get the complete picture discovers that the physician is in fact not as liable to litigation as the death rate suggest, and will provide insurance, making a profit in the process.

    Another point: I recall a quote from a wise fellow (Thomas Jefferson?) to the effect that one should always behave as if everybody was watching. This was the best guarantor of virtuous behavior. This suggest that the explosion of information will improve behavior. I do not deny that the loss of privacy will indeed lead to the three social ills you describe. The third one, however, is only applicable to a totalitarian state.

    I have long advocated that the Internet be modified so as to make anonymity impossible. That would put an end to hacking and all manner of digital crimes. That in itself would justify the alteration. So I’m arguing for even GREATER loss of privacy. I suppose that I should twirl my mustache as I write this.

    At the same time, I think that we need much more thorough laws on how companies can use private data on individuals.

  2. Ok, let me think on this. I’m no expert concerning privacy on the internet. And right now I’m mostly worried that Trump will fire Mueller and that will be the end of the rule of law.

  3. I’m an at-will employee in the public school system. I used to post widely on issues of the day, but have decided that the risk of getting doxxed is growing, so I’m trying to get out of the habit of speaking honestly and prolifically online. (And in this case, lapsing!)

  4. Also:

    The level of trolling is so much higher now than even five years ago, it feels like screaming into a hurricane to write anything with a serious point.

  5. Privacy isn’t just the right to be imperfect. It is also the right to not be mistakenly judged as imperfect, based on others’ distorted perceptions, prejudices and expectations.

    For example, I decided not to purchase tickets to one of my favorite band’s concerts, because I could not do so anonymously. There is some (completely unwarranted) controversy about this group and someone in my demographic could be negatively affected by being associated with it. If the purchase had been made, I would have had no control over the use, misuse and abuse of the data generated by it.

    For now, I will stick to more mainstream, socially acceptable and politically correct tastes in music, at least publicly.

  6. @Crawford…

    “….one should always behave as if everybody was watching. This was the best guarantor of virtuous behavior. This suggest that the explosion of information will improve behavior.”

    Um, no. We’d all have to somehow agree on what constitutes “virtuous behavior” and what doesn’t.

    I consider the collection, dissemination and misuse of so much personal information about people to be bad behavior and certainly not virtuous behavior.

    As for anonymity, the powers that be, the ones collecting all of this information, tend to live cloistered lives, in gated communities, and their social activities tend to involve exclusive parties and events to which we ordinary people can have no access.

    Meanwhile, we have to worry about misleading candid photos of ourselves being posted on Social Media for the boss or a potential employer to find.

  7. Indeed a very interesting concept. I‘d argue that banning Trump/Parler from the internet is a very recent demonstration to everyone of where the line is. It shows the consequences of speaking out your mind (lies objectively, but still). This will contribute to even more Social Cooling.

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