Facebook, and other social media, have brought a wealth of new ways to communicate. We can share photos, articles, memes, quotes, protests. But the advent of new media has brought the need for new rules. Large numbers of individuals have been collected together on online threads. There is little guidance anywhere as to how best to behave. As a consequence, people really do what they like. Some launch in with abuse; some hold back and don’t say anything; some are polite to friends but rude to enemies; some mock everything except their friends circle.
It causes a lot of unpleasantness. It’s good that everyone can speak. But perhaps current social media privileges those who can shout the loudest, type the fastest, are the most extravert.
THE PROBLEM OF PROVOCATION
A frequent difficulty is the presence of potentially provocative posts. A person or organisation will post a political viewpoint. Someone who agrees will share it. It gives those who disagree a difficult decision. Should they leave things be, or respond with a challenge?
It is a new problem, because before social media, there was always a time delay between a statement and a response. Newspapers, leaflets, television programmes, books, articles… all these media do not invite an immediate response. There was time, therefore, to consider a reply, address it appropriately, commit it to paper, and send it. Technology has rendered such ‘costs of communication’ non-existent.
Ethically, this gives the conscientious person a problem. Their conscience might tell them that ‘wrong views’ should not be left unchallenged. But their social conscience also tells them that arguing with others should be done sparingly, as there is such a risk of emotional violence. So they are left with a dilemma between standing up for what is right (active), and keeping the peace (passive). The problem is worsened if they witness someone being picked on. Once that happens, staying passive does not keep the peace, because a battle is already happening.
In summary, by eliminating the cost of communication, social media becomes a tinderbox for controversy. All someone has to do is post an edgy viewpoint, and they will attract an outpouring of latent social energy. The result is the online equivalent of a bar room brawl, but each individual believes they are acting from conscience.
A NEW ETIQUETTE
How are we, as individuals, to respond? How can we decide what is for the best? Faced with a situation in which normal conscience would be reactive, what rules could we develop to keep things more peaceful and thoughtful?
I am not concerned here with rules imposed by online organisations or the law. They are only there to prevent the worst of behaviour. I am more concerned with what rules and understandings each of us might develop in order to manage the problem of provocation. That’s what etiquette is at its best: a commonly-developed behavioural code which, when its benefits are understood and popularised, helps make life more manageable for everyone.
SOME SIMPLE PERSONAL RULES
You will have your own suggestions, I’m sure, but here are three personal rules which I think might work as guidelines, in order to contribute to peace on the internet, and to our individual peace of mind.
1. POST YOUR ARGUMENTATIVE POSTS SPARINGLY
If you post furiously and repeatedly, you will only stimulate more and more controversy. Maybe decide for yourself how many ‘argument’ posts you will post per hour or per day, and then stick to it. You can always come back to it tomorrow.
2. SPEAK TO THE ISSUE, NEVER THE PERSON
If you insult the person you disagree with, or imply that they are somehow ignorant or deficient, then it stimulates further disagreement. So perhaps stick to rational counterargument, respectfully expressed.
3. SAY PLEASE AND THANK YOU
This is hardly new, but can be amazingly effective if sincere. Try thanking people for their posts, even if controversial. And try, where appropriate, saying ‘Please could you give me some evidence?’
These three rules of etiquette, if applied, might do something to encourage respectful argument which goes somewhere. The idea is that people we can be moderate and respectful, and thereby turn the heat down on the tinderbox social media has become.
You may find your life getting more peaceful, if you hold back from arguing with everything you perceive to be wrong, and ration your disagreement. There is a lot of difficult behaviour in the world, and it would take more than your lifetime to take issue with it all!
If you are argumentative on social media, try limiting your argumentative posts to one per hour. That post should speak to the issue, not the person, and, if possible, include a please or a thankyou.
Social media technology, by eliminating the cost of communication, has encouraged reactivity and volatility online. Try imposing on yourself a few simple rules: post argument sparingly; speak to the issue not the person; and say please and thank you. This may help to make our online and personal lives more peaceful and respectful.