Why social media may be a great place to talk - but maybe not to converse
Since the 2016 election it has become impossible to deny the power that social media has not only over our national conversation, but over actual real-life world events both nationally and in our own individual lives.
For some of us, social media has become a political minefield and we long for the days when we could just chat about sports or pets or more innocuous topics. For others it has become a place to incessantly celebrate or mourn what is happening in our government and our culture.
Yet no matter what our beliefs or desires, so many of us turn to social media as a place to express them. We share information, we offer funny memes to promulgate our opinions, we post our stories and action items, we seek energy for our agendas. We talk and we talk.
But do we actually listen to each other?
Me versus you on social media
Since Inauguration Day, I've seen a number of my Facebook friends say that they can no longer maintain relationships with anyone who disagrees with them. "If you're not on board with what I'm saying," the posts go, "Un-friend me now!"
I've seen other friends engage in what can only be described as online shouting matches - many of which end up with the participants stalking off to their respective corners, everyone losing.
Social media has become so problematic in fact, that here at My Purple USA we haven't quite figured out how we want to use it. While we own a Twitter and Instagram handle, we are yet to go live on them, and our Facebook presence is fairly minimal so far, as well. That isn't to say that we won't ever join the conversation in these spheres, but in these days of raw emotion, none of them feels like quite the right place to put out our message - and they don't feel like the best environment for a conversation either.
How to have social media conversations
Of course, social media isn't going anywhere. And it can still be a great place to gather information, connect with people and contribute to a larger conversation. But how can we use it as a productive tool in our personal and political lives? How can it become a place that offers authentic connection and empathy as opposed to a shouting match or an echo chamber?
I have a few suggestions.
Pause before you post. One of the dangers of social media is that it's really easy to say things and much harder to take them back. One thing I will often do is read my words aloud before I publish them. Then I ask myself, "Would I say what I'm about to post to this person's face?" If the answer is no, I generally delete it or try to write it in a different, more nuanced way.
Try to listen to people who disagree with you. A few days before the marches that happened this past weekend, a friend of mine asked people she knew on Facebook to share why they were or were not planning to march. But she did an interesting thing: She told us that although she wanted to see all of our reasons, we weren't allowed to comment on each other's responses. And she policed the thread, reminding anyone who remarked on other people's statements (as people could not seem to stop themselves from doing) that she had specifically asked us not to do this.
It changed how I interacted with the information I saw on this thread to know that while I was invited to "listen" to what the participants said, that was all I could do. I spent more time thinking about the variety of responses I saw - some of which I found challenging - and digesting the information than I did formulating my own defensive responses. It mean I was able to "hear" what was being said even about something controversial. I've tried to take this approach in more of my social media interactions, in particular when I see something that makes me uncomfortable.
Realize that your words may be misconstrued. I recently commented on a meme that a relative shared, which I took to be scolding of the people who marched last weekend. I made what I thought was a respectful request to have a conversation about our clear differences of opinion on the topic, only to have her interpret my words as a humorless judgment on something that she thought was funny. She became defensive, I felt bad and apologized, and unfortunately now I'm pretty sure that we won't be interacting for a while.
Looking back, I wish I had messaged her privately about what she had posted and asked her what her motivations were for sharing it, checking to see if she were even interested in having a conversation before I asked her to have one with me in front of all her Facebook friends. Which leads me to my next point:
Take the conversation out of the public eye. There is a big difference between a private, one-on-one conversation and one that happens where dozens or hundreds of other people can watch and contribute their own opinions. As I demonstrated above, simple questions can be misconstrued and seem confrontational. When you take a conversation to your private messages, to email, or to Skype or a phone call you have the chance to follow up with each other, to explain yourself and to listen more carefully.
Disengage when necessary - but think about it first. You may need to un-friend or un-follow people who are hateful, who troll you without listening or who show up only to disrupt conversations you are having with others. Unproductive relationships like these are not worthy of time or effort - and no one should have to engage with hate.
But in other instances, stepping away from the conversation (and maybe logging out of your social media account for a while) can take the temperature down and give you a chance to think. After you cool off, you may find that you want to engage in a more private way with the person who has upset you. Or in other cases you may realize that he or she isn't ready or willing to have a genuine conversation but that you want to stay connected because the relationship matters to you or you have hope that in the future you may share things of value that influence and help each other.
Above all: Be kind. Remember that even though you are typing words and not speaking them, someone on the other side is receiving those words and will be affected by them. We so rarely apply the Golden Rule online, and yet there are few places where it is needed more.
Here are a few resources we've found about social media that might help you think about your social media presence and formulate your own strategy:
"Tech's Moral Reckoning" a wide-ranging conversation on the On Being podcast with tech blogger and programmer Anil Dash about social media, the tech industry and how these two things intersect with our values.
And if you're looking for a way to start a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, please check out our template for doing so.
Finally, since we aren't really active on social media yet, we've decided to open this thread up to comment with a few guiding questions:
Have you had conversations with people who disagree with you on social media? What made the conversations either productive or unsuccessful?
Would you like to see My Purple USA be active on social media? What platforms most interest you? How can we contribute positively to the larger conversation?
- Mara Gorman