In the future, will anyone care that you have an opinion?

Here's the punchline before the joke--can you state as opinion the belief that no one cares if you have an opinion?

I know, I know. That's almost as irritating as the old saw about hearing the tree fall in the forest if no one is around to hear it. But I do wonder if we're entering a time where the only opinions which matter will be those held by people willing to risk something for their beliefs.

Here's my reasoning: Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, we are constantly surrounded by people venting their opinions. If we agree with said opinions, we post our glowing support. If we disagree, we post an angry rebuttal. The result is the internets constantly getting riled up over some idea or injustice and the resulting emotional response spreading through comments and posts and tweets. With really good opinion fodder, the reaction might even jump off the nets into the fertile crap-ground of cable news and newsprint. There the opinion-fest grows for a few days before decaying back to nothing.

And in the end, what has changed? Most of the time, the answer is nothing. Because inaction thrives in an instant-response world where we don't risk anything by stating our opinions.

I began contemplating this topic after writing a recent post about the BP oil spill. During that trip to Alabama I'd been outraged at witnessing how the oil spill was destroying an environment I deeply loved. However, a funny thing happened after I wrote about my experiences--suddenly I was able to literally release the anger from my mind. Expressing an opinion gave vent to the emotions fueling my need to express the opinion. If I'd wanted, I could have easily moved on, content at having spoken my mind, never mind that speaking my mind did little to change the problem of the oil spill.

My reaction to this experience fascinated me, even more so after I read Lloyd Nimetz's essay Information Overload, Action Deficit. Nimetz argues that in our social media saturated world we process tons of information--and generate equal amounts of emotional responses--even though our ability to act on these stimuli is limited. Here's the killer quote:

"You care, but you don't act. It's ok. You're not alone. Acting requires a lot of effort usually with little perceived impact.The key is that you're not any better equipped to take action than you were 10 years ago. Where’s the progress? Change requires action ..."

In his essay, Nimetz states that "action is the next big thing to get changed by the Internet." He believes that the ability to change the world is the next incarnation of social media. That in the future we won't simply grow angry and vent online--we'll have the ability to fix the injustices of the world with the click of a virtual button.

Perhaps. But I'm suspicious about this rosy social media future because it overlooks a vital part of influencing change through one's opinion: Risk.

In the mundane world where we must physically deal with being around each other, what makes us actually change our minds about something? Likewise, what makes a person stick with an opinion in the face of overwhelming hostility? While a few people respond to logical appeals, for most of humanity changing an opinion--or acting on an opinion until it changes the world--boils down to our emotional response to risk.

The emotions I refer to are tied in with the relationships we create between each of us. These bonds nurture us as humans; without them, we're literally not human. And this is where risk exists in stating an opinion. When we read an opinion online which differs from our own, there's little risk to the relationship between the person giving the opinion and the person receiving it. As a result, people scream and yell over opinions before moving on to the next virtual fight. And in the end, nothing risked, nothing gained.

But when a friend or family member stands before you and says they disagree with one of your core beliefs, your emotional response differs. Because of the relationship and bond between the two of you--and the fact that your friend or family member is risking your relationship by expressing a difference of opinion--you consider their words differently than those of an online stranger. This reaction also carries over to people who aren't friends and family. When you meet a stranger in person and they express a differing opinion, the personal dynamic makes you more likely to listen than to some online stranger.

This dynamic also applies to the person stating the opinion. When you risk something by acting on your opinion, you are more likely to continue to push that opinion into the world. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement the jailing of protesters like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't weaken the movement. Instead, it strengthened them. The more the protesters risked, the more they were willing to risk to change the world. And the more they risked, the more others came around to their view of the righteousness of ending segregation.

To express a difference of opinion in person always carries risk. To act on an opinion carries even more risk. And how people accept and deal with those risks creates the only true change in our world.

And it is this risk, I fear, which is missing from stating an opinion in the virtual world.

This isn't to put down the recent social media explosion. One of the great aspects of social media is it brings a semblance of real-life personal dynamics into the virtual world. We friend each other on Facebook. We follow people on Twitter. And if a friend is willing to risk that virtual friendship with an opinion we disagree with, we may be more likely to listen and reconsider our beliefs.

But it is equally likely we'll simply unfriend them and move on.

It can also be risky to state an opinion through social media and the internet. Everyday we read about people losing their jobs or livelihoods for stating an opinion online. But these instances are frequently mistakes, where the person stating the opinion didn't realize there would be real-world consequences for their online words or actions. That is also why so many people online prefer anonymity, and why on many sites avatars and pseudonyms are far more popular than real names. That way we aren't truly risking anything by stating our opinions.

I have never before agreed with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but his recent concurrence in the Washington ballot case made me stand up and cheer. In a ruling stating that people signing petitions did not have a right to anonymity, he said "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

Despite what people like Lloyd Nimetz may believe, social media and the internet won't be a force for true change until they tie in more with the risk of living in the real world.  We saw a foretaste of what's to come in how social media helped the recent Green protests in Iran. Social media aided the protests and helped them gain strength, but in the end the protesters had to actually risk their lives to try and create change. While the protests were beaten back in the short term by the Iranian government, their possible long-term success rests on the blood the protesters spilled, and their belief that creating a better world was worth taking a risk.

So where does all this go in the coming years?

There are currently 6.5 billion people in the world. As more and more of them come online, I predict we will see an ever greater explosion of opinions. In one way this is great. After all, making information more available to the world can only be a force for good. But the flip side to this are billions of people screaming their opinions without the ability to actually change someone's mind. Screaming their opinions without the need to act on their opinions.

Perhaps technology will change this. As more people realize that no one is truly anonymous online, and as new technologies make tying a person's real-world face to their online persona easy, perhaps stating opinions online will take on the same risk as in the physical world. Or equally likely, perhaps having billions of people stating opinions will overwhelm any sense of risk, and make stating your views as easy--and as inconsequential--as blowing your nose.

Either way, I suspect that even with social media advances, true change will continue to result from the small subset of the population who are actually willing to risk something to remake the world. And perhaps this is how it has always been, with a few people creating the change we all benefit from. With those willing to act on their opinions creating the world we all end up living in.