Social media is an awesome tool. As someone that has made a career out of using the internet to spread messages I care about, I’ll be the first to explain the benefits. The ability to publish content without gatekeepers blocking stories they find inconvenient, the chance to connect with people you might never have otherwise met, and the tools to broadcast important information wider than you might previously have been able to are invaluable. However, it’s become obvious of the many negative consequences of a prolific presence on social media, not only for society, but also personally.
Frankly, people can be real jerks online. I’m not immune to this by any stretch of the imagination. I’m still struggle to refrain from making snide remarks, nasty quips, and the like. But over the last year I’ve made a concerted effort to be a better person on the internet, especially on Twitter. Here are the five strategies I’ve incorporated.
Reflect before you post
Internet culture, especially Twitter, rewards immediacy. To quote legendary NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” We’ve internalized this maxim online, striving to be the first to come up with the best takedown. We retweet and promote reactions that go to the extreme, not calls for caution and patience while we get more context.
We saw the race to be first as pundits, reporters, politicians, and celebrities raced to condemn the students from Covington Catholic. They dug up old stories about the school, griped about Catholicism in general, and made declarations about the high school kids intentions, motivations, and priorities from just a few seconds of a video clip.
Right away, people were calling to destroy the lives of Nicholas Sandmann and the other assembled students, even sending death threats to the school and parents of the kids. But as video came out of the incident, the truth finally became apparent. Sandmann and the students were confronted, no the other way around. Yet, the damage was done in many ways. These students had been defamed, attacked, and dragged through the mud. Now Sandmann brought lawsuits against his abusers.
Now, you’re unlikely to receive a quarter billion dollar lawsuit for anything you say online, but it’s worth reflecting on the consequences of what you are saying. Will this be something you agree with in a month? A year? Do you really need to rush to press “send tweet” before anyone else, or would waiting be prudent? Take a moment to think before you post.
Imagine saying this in real life
It’s easier to be mean to someone online than it is in real life.The digital divide dehumanizes. In person, you can hear the tone of their voice, see the facial expressions, and feel more empathy for someone, even if you disagree profoundly on an important subject. When that same conversation happens via 280 character bursts, you don’t get the same inputs humans have relied upon for our entire history.
When you’re writing that comment or angry reply email, imagine sitting in front of the recipient and actually saying what you’re typing to their face. Would you really use that kind of language if you had to look the other person in the eyes? Try reading your comment out loud before you post it, which can serve as a reminder that these words are actually coming from your mouth. Being forced to actually hear yourself say something will improve your arguments and push you away from unnecessary nastiness.
Finally, remember your post will lack context. This is all important in human communication. You wouldn’t communicate with your boss and your best friend in the same way. You probably wouldn’t talk about the same things at work as you would at a bar. Unfortunately, all context is lost on the internet. If you tweet a joke that might be more at home in a late night comedy club, realize that it’s going to be read by someone sitting in their office in the middle of a workday. The context and intention you had when you sent it is lost.
So imagine not only saying this in real life, but also imagine how it can be received. Don’t forget to consider the varying positions of your audience and how that affects how people will view what you say.
Read what you posted last year
As soon as we press send on that tweet or post that Facebook status, we largely forget about it. Message sent, it’s out in the world, and we aren’t going to read it again next month. But we should. Reading your old posts can put things into perspective. Was that controversy actually as important as it seemed at the time? Was your “hot take” too hot? Were you wrong? Looking back on your past statements can help put things in perspective today.
Reflecting doesn’t end after you post something. There are great free tools you can use to review your old social media posts and reflect on them. Facebook’s Memories feature is a great way to review your past Facebook posts. Memories shows you everything you posted each day you have been on the platform. Just by checking Memories once a day, you can review your entire history on the platform, and maybe delete some of those pictures of you at parties in college. Twitter’s Advanced Search allows you to search date ranges for specific accounts. I review my tweets one month at a time, but you can do so at your own pace.
Create real world consequences
The best thing to ever happen to my “internet career”? My pastor followed me on Twitter. And not only does he follow me, he routinely talks to me about things I tweet in real life, often as he greets congregants leaving the sanctuary. He chided me when I used vulgar language and laughed at some of my better jokes (especially the punny ones). In many ways, I know I’m accountable for my online behaviour, because someone I trust and respect is paying attention. There are real world consequences if I’m a jerk online.
Unfortunately for most people, they don’t have these intermediate social consequences like a pastor chiding you, instead they suffer more drastic consequences. Read the story of Justine Sacco. How easily could your life be impacted because of a tweet you shouldn’t have sent?
Don’t let yourself be corrected by disaster. Instead design real world consequences. Hopefully, the same people that keep you accountable online can hold you accountable in the real world. Use these reactions like guardrails that protect you from driving off a cliff.
Keep Social Media in perspective
The internet cartoon strip xkcd has the perhaps the best:
When what’s happening online begins to distort and take over your offline life, things have gone too far. We have a saying we bring up in many of our campaign trainings: Organize Online for Offline Action. Sure, you can sometimes convince people, change minds, and win arguments online, but what is it really doing in the real world?
Your time is best spent when it’s directed towards constructive action that results in real world outcomes. Clicks, impressions, retweets, and the like all have their place, but man cannot live on retweets alone. To be successful and change policy and affect political change, your actions have to translate beyond the computer screen.
Spend your time online wisely, and don’t become the troll!