By Mary Abrahamson
At supper one night, one of my “someones” showed me one of those facebook images with something short and pithy written on it. At least I think it was intended to be short and pithy. Perhaps a bit humorous. Perhaps a bit snide. You probably know the kind of thing. Sometimes it’s a quote, sometimes an image with a caption superimposed. Sometimes it’s a short video clip with commentary alongside.
I don’t really remember even, what the message or the image were in this case. But I do remember the conversation that stemmed from that incident.
It was a great conversation, and it made me wonder if it has some bigger cultural or societal import.
After seeing the facebook meme, I asked the kids, “What do you think is purpose behind this? Is it to entertain? To educate? Or is it to mock or belittle those who disagree? Does it help to start conversations, or will it more likely shut down any conversation? Or will it elicit more of the same kind of one-liners that seem to either humor and anger, or sometimes even hurt.
This led to a conversation about how conversation itself has changed, perhaps on account of, but at least concurrent to, the rise of social media. Joe and I explained to our kids that four years ago, in the previous presidential election cycle, there were people, like myself, who tried to use facebook to converse about real cultural and political issues. But what we mostly found is that it just led to arguments.
Social media is not a good venue for discussion. I’m using the term social media here to refer to the more open venues rather than private groups. Even though most of us probably limit our friends to some extent, venues like facebook, twitter, snap, instagram, and other similar social networks do not lend themselves well to conversations of more than basic greetings or images, and exchange of specific information.
One reason is that the written word offers more limited ability to rely upon social cues such as eye contact and body language to gauge the mood and attitude of the writer or reader. And further, there seems to be a tendency toward misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what is written. We don’t depend as much upon the written word as we did in the past. And we’ve forgotten how to do it well.
As we grow up and learn to socialize and converse, we must learn to sense how what we say is being received. Most of us learn to judge whether or not the person we’re speaking to is receptive to the conversation or topic or tone. And if they are not, unless the conversation is necessary, we change our tack. Often it’s out of courtesy or a sense of love for those we’re talking with. Other times, we simply wish to avoid a negative situation. We learn to sense the cues and to act upon them according to our purpose and preference.
Another angle of this is how our words effect those within earshot of, but outside of our conversation. In social media, most of us don’t take the time to filter each conversation to only certain people. Things we post and the comments those posts elicit are open for anyone, according to each persons security settings. Yes, it is true that nobody must read or attend to any particular conversation. But it’s still out there. In that sense, it can be, or at least can seem, an affront to those who are not like-minded.
Think of it this way. Think of places or situations in which we’d be likely to be in public with a group of friends having discussions. Each of us will imagine different such situations. We take a walk along a public sidewalk with a couple of friends, or sit at a park with a moms group. How about the lunch room at work, or the social hour after church? If you’re a student or young person, you might congregate in the student union, a bar, or a friend’s apartment. Wherever you gather with your friends and socialize, you use discretion and wisdom and experience to decide what conversations are appropriate for which crowds. And without even stopping to think, you tailor your conversation to the setting. You might turn your body a bit to speak more privately at some point. Maybe the person you’re talking with has that glazed-eyed, I’m-so-bored look. So you ask him about something of interest to him. You might sense that a conversation is becoming more heated than you’d like. And so you change the conversation.
Or what if the group as a whole is enjoying the heated tone and you’re all having a good rousing debate. But even then there is still a general sense how what you’re discussion might affect those not in your group. Are you too loud and rousing for the setting? Is someone at the neighboring table overhearing and getting the wrong impression? We tone down or redirect the conversation as needed in each setting. Much of the time we’re not even conscious of these things we do. But we still do them.
But with social media, those filters, those choices are not existent. Everyone on your friend list is subject to all of your conversation. Friends of yours but strangers to each other, from totally different walks of life, end up conversing through comments. They will never meet each other, so they have nothing to lose. This setting is one of anonymity. Inhibitions break down or are ignored.
Other times, someone who is not a real life friend, but a mere social media acquaintance sees something you say, and how your friends respond. But not knowing a full context of your personality, your history, the other arguments you’ve made in the past, he or she can often draw a false conclusion about what you’ve said and what you believe, and so pass judgment on you and others in the conversation. Because of this small segment of your ideology, someone infers something you don’t believe.
I’ve noticed that this election cycle, there is much less political conversation on social media than last time around. Perhaps people are realizing that social media does not lend itself to conversation. I know that’s why I stopped posting many of the things I formerly posted. I love philosophical discourse. Reading, listening, participating. I love knowing what I stand for, and why, and sharing that with others. I enjoy attempts by one party to persuade someone else of his or her own viewpoint.
But it’s just too difficlut to have a good conversation on social media.
So what do we have instead? To what have we devolved? To an unending barrage of soundbyte posts. Memes. Quotes. Morsels of thought.
This is where our communication style is today. Because so many of us spend so much time on social media, we’ve become a nation of memes. We tried conversation, and because of the aforementioned challenges we gave up. But rather than improving our ability to communicate via the written word, or changing the venue in which we’re conversing, we’ve succumbed to the short and pithy quote. If I put the best construction on it, I imagine that most of these things are designed to educate or humor. But I’ve also read many posts that radiate a feeling of smugness or self-righteousness. I see many that are insulting. And many that might be value neutral, and so whose tone has to be inferred.
I’ve seen some things that make me say, “Wow, this makes that connection really accurately.” I’ve seen many that make me say, “That’s pretty stupid,” or, “But only if it really worked that way.” And I’ve seem some that simply feel like a barb has been thrown at me, because of some opinion I hold.
So here’s my advice, my solution, to some of the problems.
Think before you post. Take a moment to quantify the purpose for each thing you post.
Does this post educate? If so, does it do so well? Is there a better way to do it? Will it reach or touch the right people?
Is this post meant as a conversation starter? Are you willing to continue the conversation with those who might have a different opinion and want to debate it? Are you able to continue the conversation? If not, then save your thoughts for a time when you are.
Is it to make people smile? Will it do that? Will it do that for all of those on your friend or follower list?
Will it feel like a barb to anyone? By posting this, are you assaulting someone’s person? Will it make anyone shake their head and say, “If only it was that simple,” or, “That’s just stupid.” If it’s just stupid, think twice. If it will hurt someone, think three times.
And I suppose the worse case scenario is those memes or quotes that are posted only to belittle those who disagree? I probably don’t even need to comment on this one. Just don’t post it. Such a goal does not make you funny or cute. And it is certainly not God pleasing.
The answers to some of the preceding questions can be clarified by considering our vocations, according to the Lutheran definition of vocation.
Ask yourself the following:
What are those things each day, each minute that God has put in your life? And is posting this meme, this quote, this pithy bit of wisdom, this morsel of humor, is this going to fulfill an aspect of your God-given vocation?
Is there someone you love and care about who seems to hold an opinion that you see as very dangerous or destructive? Do you have time for that, and more, …. ought you to take the time for it right now?
Is it your job right now to convince your facebook friends of how wrong they are on any given topic? Will your post help that?
Will this make people smile? Then share the happiness. Will only few people enjoy the humor? Then share in a private message.
Will it make you look smart or cool to a few people, and like a jerk to others? Neither of these is a Godly use of social media. Skip it entirely.
Think before you post. How can you best serve God and love your neighbor in your use of humor and wisdom? Is this soundbytes or memes going to accomplish that?
Within each of our vocations, there is a time and a place for humor. There is a time and a place for pith. There is a time and a place for discourse. And it’s easier to figure out the right time, when we remember the our are to job here on earth is to love God above all things, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.