In the age of Facebook and Twitter it’s easy to come across comments and shares that you disagree with, find ignorant, or actually find offensive. It’s also easy to be a really mean person. Every day I come across tales of people “unfollowing” or “hiding” posts from family members and friends for the simple reason that they disagree with them. This runs the gamut of politics. Conservatives do it Liberals, Liberals do it to Conservatives. On a macro level you end up with a kind of social media war with each side pushing back against the other.
But it doesn’t start out that way. It starts with the individual, the person looking for the latest viral video among the ad-feulled chaos of their newsfeed. The person trying to share a thought that’s imperfect or sincerely ignorant. The person who blocks their aunt because they didn’t like that DailyKos or Fox News article they shared. And, yes, the one who’s simply had different experiences in their life.
All this unfollowing and hiding shouldn’t really be necessary at all though because while the thoughts of others do sometimes rise to the level of “needs to be vehemently opposed,” in truth, they almost never actually do. It’s the small matters that get us all wrapped up in being angry.
Here’s how being a better person online, where we spend much of our lives, will make you a better person offline.
1. These Are People
The early days of Facebook were full of mistakes for me. It’s easy to forget that these are thoughts from a real human being who you may or may not love. It’s easy to forget that the article you’re seeing about Obama being a closet Kenyan or how Christians are all racists was shared by someone who may have rocked you to sleep as a child and loves you more than you could believe.
But regardless of whether or not you love them, remember that someone probably does love them. While this isn’t some magical pill, it will change the way you think about how you respond to what you’re seeing both emotionally and, hopefully, in what you say in return.
2. Is It What They Said Or How They Said It?
People on the internet are, by and large, not famous writers or even skilled ones. Most of the writing on social media is unclear, decontextualized, impromptu, and reactionary. It’s bad by the very virtue of how it came to be. There is no reason to expect it to be any other way and the expectation that opinions on Twitter should be cogent and well-crafted is a misunderstanding of what Twitter is even for. It’s a platform for 140 character jokes, updates, insults, and witty responses. It’s basically a giant comments section. Have you seen comments sections?
I’ve seen people get mad hundreds of times because someone online wasn’t completely correct in how they expressed their opinion. Anyone expecting perfect communication online is setting themselves up to be mad all the time because of unrealistic expectations. Don’t be that guy or girl who starts a fight over a poorly expressed opinion.
3. Don’t Be A Crusader
And don’t fight with them. Keyboard warriors don’t matter by definition. They aren’t actually doing anything in the world related to what they’re crusading about by typing up an angry screed. They’re also generally unconcerned with changing people’s minds. Far more important is telling people they’re wrong or stupid or both. As a result, anything you might say back to them as a counterargument is meaningless. It’s just lost time.
Social media is not a battlefield, it’s an ad-platform designed to make money and sell you products. Arguing with a crusader online is basically the equivalent of staring at an ad over and over and over while arguing in the middle of the street.
4. These Are Just Thoughts
Contrary to increasing belief, thoughts are just thoughts. This remains true even when thoughts are in written form. Writing something that’s offensive or wrongheaded or stupid isn’t just a right of every American, it’s a consequence of being a person who is alive. Unless you’re reading a call to arms that’s going to result in an angry mob destroying all you hold dear then thoughts on social media aren’t usually of any importance because in order to be important they have to have power behind them. Almost no one really has any influence on anyone outside their direct circle of friends and family.
5. Social Media Isn’t Reality
We’ve all seen them, the posters that think everything is an emergency and that if they don’t convince everyone they know of some particular ideology immediately then we’re all going to die. This is a peculiarity of the digital age and it’s untrue. UpWorthy built their entire business on the premise of slacktivism, the belief that by hitting ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ you’re actually accomplishing something somehow. It’s a mindset that says “if I don’t share this then I’m part of the problem.” It’s a guilt trip. In extremely rare cases of awareness this is useful and positive but most of the time it’s not.
Change and decisions get made in the real world, not online, and getting worked up every day or replying to people who are constantly worked up is detrimental to your health. It’s stressful, it harms relationships, it harms the way we think about other people generally. It makes our lives worse!
Unplug, pick up the Kindle, go for a walk, anything to remind yourself that what you’re seeing is a virtual reality, not a reality you have to live in.
6. Trolls Are Wounded Birds
Usually, people get angry when they’re hurt or are afraid of being hurt whether that’s by hypothetical creeping Socialism, the specter of rich industrialists purchasing political office, or whatever social issue is trending at the time. That troll that you see constantly making racist remarks or calling other people of good will idiots has real, human problems that aren’t immediately apparent on social media but would probably be obvious in real life.
When angry people make trolling or angry posts online they’re expecting someone to fight with them. If you have to respond, then try responding positively. You may get it thrown right back at you but that’s not the point. De-escalation is a good thing in its own right and you may just find you’re really helping someone calm down who desperately wants to find a reason to chill.
7. Anonymity Is A Rorschach Test
Who are you when no one’s looking or when only strangers are looking? While we can be pretty anonymous on the web whether literally or practically by hiding in a crowd we all know what we’ve done or said even if no one else does. I maintain that whatever energy we’re putting out there sticks with us even when no one else knows. We know!
Being the person you want to be when no one is looking will make you happier. It will make you more capable of loving yourself and it will make you more capable of loving others. It can’t be beat.
I don’t think these things are necessarily easy to do but they do help me personally to be more present in my interactions and put things into a perspective I can understand and respond genuinely to and, as a result, I’m more the me I want to be.