I’m just going to say it: I’m completely ambivalent about social media. On the one hand, it offers people a way to find and connect with others at a speed and breadth unfathomable prior to the mid-2000s, not to mention what it has done for marketing. You can chat daily, even hourly, with friends on the other side of the globe. Your phone knows the last ten restaurants and stores you’ve been to, and encourages you to share info about them with strangers. And those strangers are as likely to act on your recommendation as one that’s come from a personal friend!
So, if we’re so “up with people” when it comes to a restaurant or product review, why does so much judgment, negativity and even hostility arise when strangers interact in comment feeds? I’m constantly amazed at how a simple question, (e.g. “How early is too early in the morning to use a snowblower?”) can quickly devolve into name calling and accusations. A brief mention of the local school leads to the teachers, administration and staff being thrown under the bus for urban legend-level stories of horror. And most recently, high school kids all over the country have been accused of every sort of negative motivation simply for choosing to spend 17 minutes in silence to honor the dead in Parkland, Florida. And yes, of course, there were also benign, helpful, even supportive comments in all of these examples, but the negative energy spewed forth by those who choose to see the proverbial glass as purposely, irrevocably and irresponsibly half empty overpowers the space.
Are we getting off on anger? Are we losing our self-control, our minds, our dignity?
Turns out, the vitriol is nearly an epidemic, causing many reputable news orgs and other sites to deactivate their comments section. And it’s not just a few vocal, angry, deviant personalities—researchers at Stanford have determined it can happen to anyone. The magic formula is: being in a bad mood + seeing someone else say something you deem as negative. That’s it. That’s all it takes for trolls and cyberbullies to emerge from inside nearly anyone. And what terrifies me is, I get it. I’ve felt it. I’ve gotten mad, I’ve ranted out loud, I’ve even let a comment or two slip out before I could hit “delete.” You, too?
I think we can do better. By each other, by our kids, by ourselves. This is what I’m going to tell myself: if you’re about to call a stranger an ugly name, just STOP. If you wouldn’t want to hear it from your kid’s mouth, or your boss’s, or your spouse’s, or your friend’s…don’t say it. If you don’t have clear, citable facts to back up your POV, hold back. Reconsider whether you’d be providing commentary, or just gossiping. And when you’re in a bad mood, it’s time to step away from the news feed for awhile! Watch some kitty or baby goat videos, and see how quickly you bounce back.
Let’s be kind out there. Or at least, human.