It seems pretty certain that every human being under age 80 is on social media. Perhaps half of the people over age 80 are on it as well. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are full of amazing people, hilarious jokes, and insightful commentary – any of which can throw people into a murderous rage at a moment’s notice. So there are a few downsides to these websites. Because of the speed with which they encourage us to respond to things, we can get into all sorts of trouble. As usual, the solution to most of these problems is just slowing down. Since I know you don’t want to do that, I’ve broken it down into five concrete ways you get in trouble online …
Social media encourages and rewards rapid response. You can quip back and forth with friends, your puns literally moving at the speed of light. Or maybe you’re swimming in your everyday rage and want to channel that before it seeps into your pancreas and kills you. It’s the people who speak loudest and fastest who will tend to have the most people listening to them. Social media networks know this. That “reply” field is right there for a reason.
Let’s first consider an offline example. Were you to scream “Ass-gurgler!” at your boss during a meeting, that would certainly dazzle and intimidate the people in the room, and probably get you fired. But outside the room, people would only hear about the incident in whispers. And outside the company, people might not hear about it at all. But online, everything you say lingers in the public record. Even if you delete the offending words, there’s always a chance that someone got a screenshot of it. Or that it was archived in the Library of Congress. Many people lost their livelihood because of something they blurted out on social media. There’s the woman who made a stupid racist joke, got on a plane, landed several hours later, and found out her tweet had gone viral and she was now widely hated. I’m not excusing racist jokes, but I’m a stupid guy, and know that stupid jokes pop into one’s head every now and then. There’s an art in not saying them. Social media doesn’t encourage that art.
Best advice? Never say anything online without a team of PR professionals.
Dragging Someone Else Into It
On Twitter, you can tag someone else into a conversation. It’s a fun way to open up conversations to people who might be interested, and it’s also the worst thing one human being can do to another.
This other person might not want anything to do with the conversation. Even if they know the person who tagged them, they might not care about any of the other random strangers chirping away. And these conversations can go on for days. Imagine if your phone chimed with a notification every time someone posted in a random YouTube comment thread.
Worse is what can happen when a person with a lot of followers tags someone. Your followers are essentially people like you, except a bit less clever and quite a bit meaner. So if you’ve got a lot of them, tagging someone (an enemy) is a pretty sure way to flood that person’s notifications with hundreds of angry, less-clever versions of you, all swarming and shrieking away.
Say someone speaks ill of a celebrity. On its own, this is fine. But then one of this person’s followers tags in that celebrity, and suddenly they’re in an awkward conversation with @frandrescher. It’s an awkward thing to do to the insulter, and even worse for the insulted. What are they supposed to do when they find out someone insulted them? I get insulted online only a fraction of what I probably deserve, and I still hide under thick blankets. I can’t imagine what an actual famous person feels when … oh, that’s right, they hire people read Twitter for them.
It’s great to learn something that you already know. And since it’s right there on Twitter, you don’t even have to condense it down; you can just retweet it and let your friends know what they almost certainly already know too. But is the thing you’re retweeting actually true? Would a panel of independent experts and mountaintop-dwelling monks agree? What are your obligations to verify the information you retweet? Retelling a lie uncritically might be more innocent than conceiving the lie in the first place, but it does just as much damage.
Back before “fake news” was a synonym for “everything I don’t like” and “CNN,” the term got applied to cheap websites which were set up to publish insanely untrue news stories in the hopes that they’d get spread by gullible Facebook users. But all social media is prone to this, as is any political persuasion. Since Trump’s election, there have been dozens of loosely-researched liberal fantasies making the rounds about how Trump is supposedly behind every crime ever committed. People want it to be true, I get that. But it doesn’t make it true. We’re not powering Santa’s sled here. So think before you tweet, think before you tag someone, think before you retweet.
This is exhausting. Let’s lighten the mood a bit.
Making Jokes When The Mood Is Not Right
Twitter is great for jokes. A necessary part of telling jokes on Twitter is keeping up with what everyone is talking about. This not only lets you know the references people will get and the jokes that are already badly worn out, but will also let you know when people don’t want to hear jokes at all. During a disaster, a terrorist attack, or one of the existential crises which seem to afflict us regularly these days, no one wants to laugh at your Smurfs sex gag. I don’t need to tell you why. It’s not very woke, pal. Smurfette can do what she wants on her own terms. It’s not for any of us to judge. Oh, also it’s long been implied the Smurfs reproduce asexually, so it’s not even that accurate.
This is most glaring when it’s done by corporate Twitter accounts. Many companies draft and review all their tweets well in advance, just to make sure all their messaging is on-brand and whatnot. They then schedule the tweets to be posted at a later date. But by taking the human element out of the timing of their jokes, these companies can end up in exactly the disaster they were trying to avoid. They might not accidentally praise tyrants, but if they make a joke when everyone else in the world is weeping, it’s almost as bad.
When people say racist, sexist, homophobic, or other awful things and get away with it, it only emboldens them to say it again. So we shouldn’t remain silent when we see this stuff in the wild. That’s what the callout is for; you see someone say something awful and call them out for it. But does it work?
When you get criticized online, your immediate reaction is usually to get defensive. You’re ALWAYS right, so these critics must be idiots. You marshal counter-arguments, find allies, and dig out your own childish insults to hurl back. It takes some practice to stop and consider whether the critics have a point, especially if that point is accompanied by insults and calls for your death.
The limitations of social media amplify some of the problems here. Character limits leave room for insults but not persuasive arguments. And that this is all being done in public lends everything a performative air – it’s less “Here are three things you haven’t considered” and more “I call for your immediate death by bees” while people thunderously applaud.
If the intent is to punish the person being called out, then it still kind of works. They get their nose publicly bloodied and develop a fear of bees, and maybe it discourages their peers from speaking up in the same way. Or does that just drive that speech underground, sending our racist but possibly redeemable foe scurrying into the arms of people even worse than them? That doesn’t sound good.
The problem exists within progressive communities as well. There are a number of issues that fall under the umbrella “feminism,” which feminists have differing opinions on, and pretty heated arguments ensue over the degree to which transgender people should be included within feminism, or the relative morality of sex work. The arguments and callouts can get vicious. And this is for people who agree with each other on 98 percent of their worldview.
Also, consider the ridiculousness of deciding whether it’s OK to wear a sombrero at a party or ask for a sushi night in the cafeteria, for fear of getting called out on social media later about “cultural appropriation.” The discourse about the discourse is getting problematic.
We probably shouldn’t let racists be racist, and that logic seems like it should extend to other social ills as well. But think long and hard before making those callouts, especially the insult-laden ones. They’re probably doing less good than you think. And a sombrero sushi night is not evil. It’s fine. Just space the chairs out a little more so you don’t keep bumping into each other.