Would You Say What You Write?

Written by Judy Klipin

There seems to be an escalation of social media outrage at the moment.  Virtual name-calling, mud-slinging and moral indignation is burgeoning.

Last week South Africa was up in arms about racism on Twitter   It all started with one young woman posting a racist tweet and, before many hours were up, that tweet had been re-tweeted countless times, causing a national outcry and ruining the career of that young woman.

This week I am fascinated (much in the same way one can’t look away from a horrible accident) by a number of Facebook discussions which feel – to me – quite a lot like playground spats, but covered by a thin veneer of politeness and adult language.

Why do we use social media to make racist/sexist/homophobic/judgemental remarks?  For that matter, why do we use it to say anything that may be regarded as insensitive, confrontational or inflammatory?   I have no idea what is going on in the minds of others who use social media to express themselves, but I do have a theory about why the virtual environment is heating up so.

Social media (and by that I mean Facebook, Twitter and even e-mail) provides a weirdly paradoxical sense of anonymity and intimacy that results in boundary confusion and blurring.

Even though we have never actually met many of our Facebook ‘friends’ in real life, we feel as though we know them. We know what they are drinking/eating/reading on a daily basis.  We know where they go on holiday.  We know what their preferred form of exercise is and where they like to practice it.  We know where they live and what flowers grow in their gardens. We may even know their religious beliefs and some of their philosophical outlook if we belong to the same discussion group.

We know what they choose to share about themselves in a public forum.

But we don’t really know them – not the private, real, warts-and-all them.  And they don’t really know us. Because we don’t generally reveal our private, real, warts-and-all selves on social sites.

The nature of social networking is that we make a connection with someone without actually seeing them or being seen.  For all its abilities to connect people from all over the world, technology is not yet able to bring warm, live, seeing and feeling bodies together.

Despite our connections, there is a sense of disconnect, of anonymity, of omnipotence in what we say to each other through the perceived veil of safety that distance and invisibility provide.

And it is that sense of disconnect and omnipotence that allows us to write a hot-headed statement and hit the ‘post’ button without giving much thought to the possible consequences.  We become ostrich-like in our thoughts and behaviour, believing that if we can’t see others then they can’t see us. 

But they can.

Being on Facebook or Twitter is like having a conversation with a friend in a crowded coffee shop, or talking to stranger in a supermarket queue; you don’t tell your intimate thoughts and life events to a stranger standing behind you while waiting to pay for your milk because there is a very great risk of being overheard, misheard, misunderstood, and repeated. 

Perhaps the same should apply to social media sites?

If you were in a crowded coffee shop or a supermarket queue, surrounded by people who did not know you at all, would you say – out loud – the sorts of things you write?

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3 comments

3 people commented on this

Hey Judy – timely post. My social networking is confined to FB and LinkedIn. I have joined a few closed coaching groups on FB and a few people from those groups have sent me ‘friend’ requests which I have accepted as I enjoy interacting with people around the world. However as my FB page is personal I post personal things that virtual colleagues who are now FB friends may find too intimate but I will not apologise for that. I do not initiate debate on my page because when family or friends have something to say to each other we pick up a phone or wait until we next see each other – we use FB to share photo’s, posters and quick updates. However the closed coaching groups are a different story. For the most part I have found the coaches in the groups to be generous in the sharing of their resources but on occasion someone will post something that clearly comes from a closed personal perspective and that is when things get interesting. I am mostly pleasantly surprised at the dialogue that follows and the generosity of spirit that is evident but there are times when I am disappointed and even disillusioned at the tone of the replies as they show judgment and condemnation for differing points of view, and as a fellow coach that concerns me – but that is an ethics topic rather than a social media one as far as I am concerned. What I truly enjoy about this particular form of social media is that it gives me the opportunity to participate or not – so although I may not like what I am ‘hearing’ I believe social media like FB is valid because unlike a supermarket queue it allows you to engage or disengage at will. I think it comes down to expectation and intention. As I work alone my intention is to engage and engage I do. Thanks for the interesting post Judy, I enjoyed it.

Thanks for this Colleen. I totally agree with you. And I do think that FB and other forms of social media are important and useful on many levels and for many purposes.
What intrigues me is the way we interact with virtual friends, and respond to each other in these fora. I, too, value the ability to disconnect or connect – I guess what I am interested in is what makes people connect on social media when they may choose not to in ‘real life.’
I, for instance, may well just walk away from an ‘actual’ conversation that differs from my own values and world-view, whereas in ‘virtual’ spaces I find myself more intrigued and the potential for my involvement in a debate seems to increase.
The question ‘would you say what you write?’ is one that I have been playing with in my own mind for some days now, and I am so pleased that you commented on this and contributed to the conversation!

Brilliant!

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