If you were to ask me to make a list of social media positives, it would be easy. The simple fact that social media is making high school reunions obsolete makes it one of the most life-affirming gifts to come along in my lifetime.
That said, it is also bringing out and encouraging some of the worst things about human nature.
Here are three:
1. You can literally argue all day long
My grandmother used to always tell me, “Never discuss religion or politics.” It was advice from a time when wiser heads had more brain cells dedicated to keeping the peace. I can’t blame them. My grandparents went through the depression and second world war; they placed a premium on getting along. Because of that, they never even talked to each other about their differing political or religious views.
I think there’s something to be said for sharing and learning to respectfully disagree about issues without devolving into name calling and bickering. But if there was any hope for evolving in that direction, it seems lost now.
Facebook’s algorithms send everything your friends “like” or comment on through your feed. This means you’re going to see plenty of stuff you don’t agree with. If you’re smart, you’ll simply unfollow anyone who regularly likes or comments about stuff that gets you all riled up. But that’s only if you’re smart. Too many people feel this overwhelming need to wade into every thread they disagree with.
As a pseudo public figure, I keep an open Facebook profile and public Facebook page and you wouldn’t believe (or maybe you will) the number of people who just have to voice their frustration on seeing things they don’t agree with. It’s usually in the way that communicates their intellectual superiority. They’ll show up in my updates and hound, and badger people for hours.
It leaves you with one of three choices:
- Ignore them (in which case they set up shop arguing with and belittling everyone else)
- Block them (which runs the risk of deleting a person who might not really be a troll. Last night I blocked someone who looked like they were going to be difficult, and I ended up being accused of censorship.)
- Argue with them (I have to admit that sometimes I enjoy this option, but eventually it brings out the worst in me.)
Virtual anonymity is creating monsters
If you were to take the entire internet and arrange all the sites on a spectrum of anonymity, you’d find the most egregious behavior in happens in places where identities are kept a secret. Read the comment section of any news outlet or check out some of the interaction in forums. When people can interact anonymously, the truth comes out. I don’t mean truth in the sense of alignment with reality; I mean truth about people’s real character—who they are when no one’s looking. When people don’t have to use their real names and it can be a complete horror show.
That’s why people in Facebook threads will behave a little kinder in a friend’s update than they will on a business page or the thread of a stranger. The thinking is, “well, they don’t know who I am.” But have you ever had that experience where you “liked” something and realize a friend or family member saw it and is now fighting with everybody in the comments? It’s humiliating because everyone knows whose friend that is. I have so many private messaged apologies from friends who made the mistake of “liking” one of my updates and are now embarrassed by one of their loved ones.
But the thinking of these individuals is, “What do I care? They’re not my friends—just a bunch of idiots on the internet.” What makes it even more difficult is that once a disagreement is public, no one will give up any ground because they’re not going to be publicly bested in an argument. There’s seldom any way it ends well.
What’s scary is that more and more I am seeing terrible behavior from people who are less and less anonymous. I sometimes worry that social media is training us to elevate our opinion over any other consideration, and it’s going to start having a disastrous effect on our ability to read social cues, learn conversational self-control, and respect others.
The world’s full of people who don’t agree with you
Social media is creating a culture that makes sharing your opinions a virtue. That’s not exactly a negative; it has given a voice to a lot of marginalized groups and people. But it guarantees that you’re going to be confronted with opinions you don’t agree with.
It might be a helpful discipline to not to allow yourself the compulsion to comment on everything you have a contrary opinion about. In fact, it’s good practice to realize that it’s entirely possible for you to be wrong.
2. Derision as entertainment
If you’ve been around the internet for a while, you’re probably familiar with PeopleofWalmart.com. It’s a website dedicated to pictures taken of the questionable characters found in the Walmarts of our nation. There’s no question that Walmart is a magnet for our culture’s most colorful people.
I’ll admit that it’s pretty funny. But here’s the problem: Most of these pictures are taken without the consent of the subject and placed online for the sole purpose of mockery . . . and many of them have mental illnesses.
Now that nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket and the ability to upload content to social media immediately. I frequently see Facebook posts and Instagram pics of strangers in compromising or silly positions. In fact, I’m also guilty of uploading images I have found funny without any consideration for anyone else involved.
Lately I can’t help thinking that this falls under Jesus’ “do unto others” credo. I don’t want some embarrassing or shameful moment of mine posted online as amusement for someone else. There has to be a point where the people who claim to follow Christ place a higher premium on protecting the dignity of others over taking pleasure in their humiliation. Other people don’t exist for my scornful entertainment.
3. We don’t care who we hurt
Imagine a fireman in your town was caught in a relationship with an underage girl. It’s shocking when someone in a position of respect and authority is caught doing something so unsavory.
In the old days, we’d get on the phone or gossip in a cafe. Now we can just get online. The travesty is that every news story, petition, opinion, and comment shared about this story bounces all around town and ends up in the news feeds of this guy’s family, and they’re victims too. I’ve seen it and it’s devastating.
Being a teenager is hard enough. How much harder is it when people in town and all your friends’ parents are having public discussions about what a scumbag your dad is, or how he should be locked up forever—or worse. The public shame and humiliation is paralyzing.
You can’t control the information on Facebook unless you completely lock it down. Even with the best of intentions, the desire to communicate your displeasure and disgust on local issues can revictimize victims, the families of victims, and the families of criminals.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is refrain from posting sensitive and inflammatory things that can make people’s lives harder. The one person who might benefit from hearing your perspective, is seldom the one that does.
What did I miss?
What negative behaviors do you feel social media is exacerbating? What did I miss? What am I wrong about? Leave me a comment—but for God’s sake, use your real name and be nice.