Monday, April 15, 2013

The Unsocial Side of Social Media and The Downfall of Civility

Social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, to name a few – are increasingly becoming a part of everyone’s lives. Having to maintain various social media sites for my web sites, I’ve experienced both the good and the bad sides of social media. The good side: it’s great way to share information to a wide range of people, keep up to date on news and politics, or follow a favorite TV show or celebrity. The bad side: people behaving badly.

Back in the “old days” - before the Internet, email, and social media sites - people communicated mostly face to face or over the phone. People knew the real names of those to whom they were speaking, so it was important to be civil. It was easy to gauge emotions and to determine if a person was happy, sad, joking, or serious. One never used “fighting words” unless they were prepared for a fight, either physically or verbally. Before opening one’s mouth, it was smart to engage the brain. If a person communicated in writing – such as in a letter or greeting card – it was important to think out the message before writing/typing as changes were time consuming.

As email became available, it promoted communicating with speed, and was quickly embraced by businesses. Those that wrote angry emails and pressed “send” before thinking about the repercussions learned that their anger often diminished their message, alienated people, and sometimes ended careers.

With the Internet also came Internet forums and discussion groups, where members could dialog anonymously. It was fun to share information with others but it didn't take long before civility flew out the window. Now a person could say what they wanted to anyone and not worry about anyone knowing who they really were. (This was when Internet trolls were born.)

As social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter took hold, people began to connect and communicate in new ways. It was easy to communicate with family, friends, acquaintances, and those outside the normal person’s circle – politicians, businesses, celebrities – you name it. A person could connect to just about anybody else in the world through social media outlets. Information now travels around the world with the speed of light. That’s a good thing. The bad thing: civility took another hit. Now a person can verbally attack anybody as easily and as quickly as I could type this sentence, and reach a wide audience with speed. The effect is somewhat less on Facebook, where - technically - people are supposed to sign up using their real name, and where they should only “friend” those they actually know. But this doesn’t exempt members of Facebook from being attacked with words by someone they call a “friend.” On Twitter, however, one can set up any name they want (as long as it doesn’t exceed a certain number of characters) so people can be whomever they want. The good side is that people aren’t afraid to say what they really think, a plus for freedom of speech. The downside is that people aren’t afraid to say what they really think, and some cross the line with their words. I’m amazed at how shocked people can be when they send an angry tweet, or post an inappropriate photo, or say something incredibly stupid or insensitive, and they find it coming back to bite them. This has been evident more with high profile “tweeters” such as celebrities and politicians who likely have large followings and whose slip-ups on Twitter can spread exponentially.

Trouble on social media can be avoided by following some very simple guidelines:

1. What you write is likely out there forever and likely accessible to the public. Sure, some sites have privacy controls,  and updates, tweets, photos and videos can be deleted, but that doesn’t mean someone hasn’t copied it or forwarded it someone else before you deleted it. THINK before you post your message. Your words, photos, and videos can follow you for life.

2. Never post photos on the Internet that you wouldn’t want your parents, grandparents, children, spouse, significant other, constituents, boss, co-workers, potential employers, etc. to see. Because if you do, they will.

3. Write your message as if the person reading it is standing right in front of you. Most people aren’t likely to insult someone right to their face, at least not without thinking about it first.

4. There is such a thing as too much information. You don’t have to tell everyone every little single thing you do or think, and no one likes a braggart. Keep your messages brief and your posts to a minimum.

5. If you post something on social media, expect feedback. If what you posted is controversial, you’ll REALLY get feedback, and, in the case of Twitter, likely from people who may not follow you. Remember, by sharing on public social media, you asked for it. You reap what you sow.

6. Don’t call people names or swear at them, period. It’s childish and serves no purpose.

7. Never post in anger. Think about the damage your words can cause…to yourself, your image, your reputation, and even family and friends.

Social media is an excellent way to stay connected to both your inner circle and the rest of the world. When used correctly, social media can inform, unite, and inspire others. When used incorrectly, it can ruin friendships, destroy a person’s image, create hard feelings, and alienate people. It’s not hard to use social media in a manner that brings out the best in people. By starting with thinking before you post, and by being civil, we can encourage the best in others!

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