It seems hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a story about social media gone wrong. Whether it is a celebrity or athlete tweeting something they shouldn’t, a regrettable Facebook post, or some other mishap, there seem to be many more ways to get oneself in trouble with the use of Social Media.
I am certainly not immune to this. Part of the reason I started this blog was because I kept finding myself making mistakes in Facebook, and I have even damaged relationships because I forgot where and how I was communicating. In this post I am going to talk about 5 tricky problems that Social Media create or promulgate, and my thoughts on how to deal with them.
It is very difficult to properly communicate tone. Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media sites tend to be very text based. Sure, you can send pictures and short videos, but for the most part the communication that happens is the written word. As has always been the case, properly communicating tone is very difficult in the written form. Skilled, professional writers spend years perfecting the ability to convey the mood of the writer, and even then it can be left up to interpretation. When we mere amateurs embark on writing, it can be near impossible to convey the difference between mild annoyance, sarcasm and rage. We lull ourselves into believing that a well-placed emoticon, the use of capital letters, or some other device will do the trick. But, the reality is that we are quite limited in how we get across the tone of our message.
When we converse with one another face-to-face, we have a wealth of other non-verbal cues to help convey our point. When we rely on the written word, we have to be far more careful and explicit.
(Quick aside. Before someone misrepresents the work of Albert Mehrabian, please don’t think I mean that only 7% of communication is through our words. That isn’t what Dr. Mehrabian said, and isn’t true. It is an oft cited, usually misunderstood study).
Social media thrives on extreme brevity. Twitter limits individual messages to 140 characters (including those insipid hashtags). Facebook comments and posts can be longer, but most people rarely say more than a sentence or two. I am appalled to read “news” articles that cite tweets or Facebook comments as part of their story. In addition to being fairly lazy journalism, it also tends to fan the flame of the sound bite culture.
Very few well thought out, rational thoughts that have any meaning beyond the obvious can be communicated in 140 characters or less. (that sentence, which isn’t particularly insightful, was 132 characters in length). What passes for a “thought” in the Social Media is barely more than a blurb.
Recently I tried to make a comment about a particular, current event. The comment in my head was quite well thought out, and supported a particular position. Because of the brevity of the comment I made, not only was my full meaning not understood, but –in fact – many readers reached a conclusion that I was in support of a 180 degree opposite position. I caused confusion and embarrassment for myself and others.
It is way too convenient. Time was if you wanted to make a comment on a news story, or to tell a distant friend your opinion, you had to find a phone, or get out pen and paper and send a letter to the editor. Today most everyone I know carries with them a computer more powerful than most of the computers I owned in the 90s. Smart phones have the capability to let you quickly, and far too easily, communicate your thoughts. The concept of the “drunk text” or the “drunk tweet” come to mind for sure, but even just the ability to, within a few seconds, flame someone in a text message is something that until very recently simply didn’t exist.
We sometimes lose sight of the extreme power we have at our fingertips. We can all recite Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s quote that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. In 1839, when that phrase was coined, it implied that dipping ones quill into an ink well, or negotiating the operation of a fountain pen, was more effective than going to physical battle. Then you wrote, and sent to someone to publish, and hoped someone else read what you had to say. According to some research, the average facebook user has 141 friends. With the ability to “share” an update, the number of people who may see your thoughts grows exponentially. And it is always at your fingertips.
The perceived anonymity of the keyboard. Many people write, post and publish things as though they think they are writing only to themselves. Writing a comment on a news story, sending out a tweet and the like might give the casual user the perception that they are fairly anonymous. And, when someone perceives they are anonymous, any filters they had come off.
Of course, we are rarely anonymous. What we write can be easily traced to us. While I don’t use my full name on my blog, I have no misconceptions that someone with even moderate skill can find out my identity. But for those that harbor the perception of anonymity, Social Media become even more tricky to navigate.
The Internet is FOREVER. We have all seen the stories. Someone tweets something completely inappropriate, it becomes a news story, and then they delete it. Perhaps they think that the delete button gives them Internet Absolution. But, we all know how it really goes. Before the delete key, someone (usually thousands of people), has already copied it, re-posted it, re-tweeted it, and so on and so on.
Once something hits the Information Superhighway, it is out there forever. There is no do over, my-bad, or reset button.
So, what are we to do?
I don’t really have any magic answers here. As I said above, I struggle with these concepts myself from time to time. I think the best advice I can give is actually quite simple. Think before you send. Use the Abe Lincoln approach of saving a draft of something before you decide to release it into the world. I am not being some modern day Luddite with this idea. I am merely saying that showing more discretion, and keeping in mind the reach and scope of your audience can go a long way in preventing trouble. If you have a long, well thought out take on something, don’t try to reduce it to a tweet. Take the time to say it with some detail.
And, if you have something to say to an individual, contact that individual. Don’t air the dirty laundry on Social Media. Call them, visit them, or write them a personal message.
I would love to sit here and say that I will always do these things. But, I know my own human frailty, and I know that I will continue to make mistakes. So, that leaves me with one last thought on this subject. When someone does screw up, and they know they screwed up, and they come seeking forgiveness…try showing them at least as much kindness as you did venom at the mistake. The more we forgive, the more we embrace our own human condition.