There is no shortage of social media critics. From the crowd that yells, “It’s ruining our personal relationships!” to “It’s killing our communities,” and the like. But as social media has critics, it also has as many supporters who emphasize its advantages in our ability to connect and communicate instantaneously, and on a global scale.
Technology, contrary to some belief, is not value-neutral. All creations exist within the context of the culture that fostered their development, and thus cannot escape whatever values are present in that culture. So even in technology, as we can see from those who vehemently critique it or unabashedly support it – and the rest of us who exist somewhere in the middle – we are always negotiating the values of the technologies that we use.
Being in digital media, I, like many (if not most) of my colleagues, have a love-hate relationship with social media. It is a great way to be constantly knowledgeable of the occurrences and conversations in many communities. And more importantly, it breaks some of the barriers to entry and participation in prior traditional mass media.
There is of course the downside. It fosters this need for awareness of everything; a need to always be in the know. It can distract one from participating in one’s physical spaces and reality, in lieu of whatever is going on that is more interesting over there. Like with most things in life, I personally (and professionally) try to find the virtuous middle – that space between the extremes. Because I do value social media and its consequences. But I also value many other things that occur outside its space.
Nonetheless, I have been caught up in what I would call the need to immediately react to a news story or a Twitter trend or a viral opinion. Sometimes without first receiving full information on whatever subject matter has become the talk of the Internet towns I may visit from time to time. Usually what occurs is the “bigger” the news event, the more the (Internet) towns talk. And of course the stronger the emotion, the stronger the expression of one’s thoughts – now made public.
I think I have had prudence more often than I haven’t. But I have also in many an instance, engaged without a second thought, often in matters that are close to my heart. This includes (negative) stereotypes of Africans, racism, police brutality, etc. And because of this, a few times, I have had to eat humble pie, and deservedly so.
I prize myself on being a thoughtful person so when I have engaged in such emotionally charged reactions, and done so immediately, in hindsight, it often feels out of character. But not only that, I have felt almost a silent pressure – perhaps inflicted on nobody other than myself, or the perceptions of the imagined audience I am communicating with – to react immediately to a story. A sense of, “Will they think I don’t care about this story if I’m not sharing my thoughts on it?” And if I am to be entirely honest, I have felt it perhaps because I have looked at others with the same kind of absurd judgment.
This is emotional terrorism.
Our emotional terrorism leads us to feel like we must have an opinion to showcase that we are aware, that we are thinking about whatever subject matter it is we should be thinking about; that we care. But even in the time of digital communications and social media playing a role in how the public communicates and interacts, the choice to stay silent, or to wait, should not be interpreted as ignorance or apathy.
I fear, however, that this need to emotionally react and to do so with conviction and in a “timely” manner, is so restrictive that it comes at a cost to our desire to understand a situation before we comment on it. It also, I think, comes at a cost to our own well-being in our interactions in digital media – which is a consideration far too many of us overlook.
Take for instance, the Ashley Madison debacle. I made no comment on it to date because I simply have no interest in such a site – not even to critique it – and yes, that comes from a moral conviction. But I also did not think of it as righteous in terms of the series of events that may have affected personal lives – people who many of us may not know.
I suppose I could have shared the above remarks in my social media spaces. But what would have been the point? I didn’t particularly care for that specific news event, regardless of its popularity. And to me, its social consequences, did not warrant the attention it received. I didn’t want to know any more about it than the little I did.
Whatever angle I would have taken, it would have likely been a moral high ground that nobody asked for. Moreover, it makes me increasingly uneasy how private individuals have their dirty laundry shared in public spaces. If for no other reason than one of my favourite sayings, “Everybody has a chapter in their life they don’t read out loud.”
Emotional terrorism in the age of social media has the capacity to get worse. As people spend more of their time online, as the digital identity becomes more important, more a part and parcel of any individual’s existence – the emotions we display, the emotions we expect from others, are also sure to increase. And that includes our emotional reactions to whatever we see in social media spaces.
I am not quite sure there is a “cure” for it, or at least one that doesn’t take away individuals’ access to freely express themselves as they choose – within the boundaries of particular spaces. And I am by no means even suggesting that we should police ourselves for the sake of perception. For those who exist in marginalized identities especially, the digital space facilitates their freedom to speak. And if one feels silenced as a matter of their humanity and existence, it is always better to speak.
But I am advocating for greater thought to be put into how we communicate what we communicate; how we react emotionally, and our expectations of others in our social media spaces.
I keep going back to prudence because I have found it to be the best companion of courage – which we need to share our thoughts about who we are and what we think, to friends and strangers alike, during this age of social media.
Perhaps courage and prudence together can not only make us better communicators online, and defeat emotional terrorism slowly but surely. But perhaps these two virtues together can also make us entirely better people in our interactions with all facets of culture – with all things and people. Indeed we ought to always seek to become a better people.