Social Media and Civility: An Oxymoron?
I was reading a blog post the other day, and after I finished, I looked at the comments. The post itself was obviously written with the author’s tongue firmly planted in their cheek, and most of the commenters seemed to get this, but I was struck by the level of viciousness incorporated into the responses of multiple feedback providers. The attacks were deeply personal and totally uncalled for; but, to me, the saddest part of the entire experience is that I wasn’t surprised to see them. Obviously, since I blog myself, I realize that there are many readers that disagree with what I have to say. And that’s okay. By putting my ideas out there, I accept the fact that there are others out there with dissenting views. Those are the folks that I’d most like to hear from. Sure it’s nice when people who agree with me on a topic tweet or “like” what I say, but really isn’t the purpose of the entire exercise to initiate a discussion on the issue? Naturally, this calls for those who disagree with me (or any blogger) to respond in kind to make their own case. Unfortunately, as I look across the spectrum of social media, it seems that rather than promoting reasonable and civil discourse, these tools are serving to toll the death knell for the premise that reasonable people can disagree.
In reading the comments on the blog, I had to wonder if we have always been so angry as a people or has the ability to hide behind pseudonyms like “darkshadow01” or “blonde482” provided a pathway paved with vitriol for those who otherwise would meekly cower if they ever confronted those who they disagree with in person? In other words, has this electronic anonymity instilled in all too many of us a level of savagery that was simply not acceptable in the days before we could launch a personal attack against someone from the convenience of our iPhone? If we are honest with ourselves, we would agree that both questions are rhetorical. The same technology that has enhanced our ability to communicate is also an enabler for the impulsive release of missives from the baser element of our psyches. The cloaked anonymity of social media has enabled the fury of the mob to be encapsulated in the hands of the individual.
In reflecting on this issue, I sometimes wonder if this ubiquity of communications capability has made us poorer as a society. Like so many things in life, advancements in technology require us to sacrifice something that we have previously embraced. Like in all things often their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Perhaps our ability to express our opinions in any manner that we please to anyone who disagrees with us is the sacrifice that is asked for in the age of Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I believe that this is a false choice, but a choice nonetheless. For example, when we forgo a face-to-face to send a text, we have made a conscious decision to choose the impersonal over a personal mode of communication. For convenience we sacrifice a modicum of humanity. A smiley-faced emoticon does not replace the nuance of the human voice and the facial expression that comes with it.
Please do not mistake these thoughts for the ramblings of some misanthropic Luddite. We live in an age that is truly remarkable, and the benefits that technology will deliver to us in the future are almost beyond our imagination. But I also believe that just as technology improves our lives it places a greater burden upon us to work harder to preserve our humanity and senses of personal responsibility and individual dignity. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
Perhaps in seeking the best guide for us as we continue to move forward into the future, and how we will use the tools available to us, requires that we look backward in our history. In his first inaugural address Lincoln spoke to our inherent civility and his words are applicable, albeit in a more contemporary sense, to all of us as we exercise our rights of expression through social media: let our actions be dictated by “the better angels of our nature”.