What do you risk when you express yourself online?

That’s the question I found myself asking after reading Jason Sanford’s brilliant and thoughtful post about opinions, risk and social change. Here’s a taste:

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…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…

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…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.

Do take the time to read the entire post, which offers a much more nuanced take on the risks that people do take online, and how those compare with the risks of face-to-face disagreement. But the argument that I found most fascinating is contained in the paragraphs above: the idea that the weight of an opinion exists in relation to the costs of expressing it.

People ask me constantly about online risk management, whether they’re thinking about managing online risks to their organization’s reputation, or managing risks like identity fraud or data theft. But Jason’s post points out that risk has its own reward: the reward of forcing us to think carefully, to consider the impact of our words, and in particular, to think about the impact of what we say on the relationships we care about.

Seen from that perspective, risk may not be something you always want to limit online. In fact, you could make an argument that by raising the stakes of your online participation — by posting under your own name, by giving your blog’s URL to your colleagues, by being more candid and authentic in what you say online — you increase the value of your online engagement. It’s the risks of communication that give it value and power, that force us to think about what is worth saying, and that discipline us to communicate with care. When we deceive ourselves into thinking that nobody is reading what we’re writing, and that nothing is at stake — that’s when our online communications fail the reality test.