What Social Media Has Taught Me About Sensitivity and Respect

Following up on my post about the Boston Marathon bombing and even other posts where I discuss my positive experience with social media, I have been thinking about the fact that social media has made me more sensitive and reflective.  So often I hear people discuss social media as a dehumanizing and vampiric tool on human sensitivity and respect.  The anonymity and distance from one another allows us to be mean without consideration of the impact.  Just do a quick Google search on the latest obnoxious, racist, sexist, and mean things flowing out of the internet and this justifies as proof-positive that the internet is a cesspool of despicable peoples.    At least that's how the argument goes.

But I find it's quite different for me.  I'm increasingly sensitive to what I'm saying, posting, commenting upon, and interacting with online.  That's not to say I'm censoring what I say or refraining from speaking, but I'm more deliberate in what I have to say and I'm likely to vet it more before posting.  Even on Twitter, I think more critically about my use of 140 characters.  I'm still critical and challenge things that I find problematic or dubious, but the ways in which I challenge them are increasingly more restrained.

I find myself doing this for a few reasons.  The first is the fact that because of digital technology, anything can be captured and recapitulated into the larger world in mere moments and I will largely have little say of whether that something of mine is deep and respectful or obnoxious and insulting.  Also, at the end of the day, I want my digital identity to correspond with and reflect my physical identity (or at least my conception of it).   Another reason is that I find much richer and rewarding conversations and dialogue when I post with respect than when I don't.  I make more friends and connections.  I learn more about myself and others.  I get a slice of that human need for dialogue.

I've also realized that aggressive arguing, attacking, and insulting doesn't suit me.  I would rather not be up half the night in such debates like the meme below.  I can easily get an awful sense of indignation and righteousness--that's not hard at all for many of us given the right topic and the wrong comment.  But I find little or no value in dispensing my wrath through social media.  Largely, because it doesn't dispense itself but just sits there waiting to collide into someone else and begin nothing productive but a virtual yelling match between two people.  That is, anger just festers.
http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6067/6027755162_87e38e4708.jpg
We often do this; and yet never feel better.

But the internet and social media feel less and less like an nebulous, anonymous, and potentially hostile environment to me and more and more like a very large room with the capacity for people to hear everything that you may say.  This enormous, ongoing, cross-cultural, trans-generational conversation puts me in contact with many other people in many different places (geographically, politically, spiritually, sexually, etc).  Slowly but surely, the conversations that I've hopped into with more callousness or sense of right have only reminded me of the multiplicity of understanding and process in the world.  In plain, it's shown me time and again that I'm wrong in many different, humbling, and wonderful ways.  Thus in moving forward, I increasingly try to step back before stepping forward.

So where is all of this coming from?  Last week, I heard about the major explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas as it was being reported; it is another tragedy in the unfolding like the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that week.  Upon first hearing it, a host of quips came to mind--none of which were appropriate, but did capitalize on the intersection of fertilizer and explosion.  I have no doubt Twitter and the like are inundated with such quips and off remarks.  I could have easily tossed out a bunch of them, but I realized I didn't want to.  Sure, someone might laugh but it would be at the expense of real people.  People that I'm likely to find out in some way, shape, or form, I am connected to--and who even if I'm not connected to, I'm likely to read about their stories, lives, and experiences from a variety of writers and creators on the internet.  This is what I mean by the large room.  We become much more aware of how closely we are connected and that means we're more connected to events even when they are afar.  We see the human element of the event more and more because it's a quick check of our various social networks to get a sense of who it has reached.  We're increasingly in those networks of connection.  

Thus, more and more, when I prepare to hit the send, tweet, publish, or post button, I'm more likely to think much more about who will read this and how will impact them.  How can I communicate my thoughts and ideas in a way that will effect them without insulting or aggravating them.  I think it has made me a better communicator in many ways and have seen direct and indirect indicators of this.  It's also made my life richer and more enjoyable.

To be clear--I'm no saint in this regard.  I still slip into a more antagonistic role in social media at times.  Though I find it interesting that I'm likely to do that with people that I've known 10 years or longer--slipping into previously established scripts and roles--but for most people whom I know from adulthood and may have never met face to face, I find that I try to maintain a mutual respect, regardless of differences.  It's not an all or nothing and I think there is a learning curve involved.

I think it's also that social media brings to our attention the ways that we are in our day to day lives that we miss or don't necessarily see--but can actually follow in through looking at a week's or month's worth of posts and comments on a social media site we favor.  This opportunity to capture how we interact and be able to examine and study it is something I don't think we really have done well in our day to day lives.  Our conversations, interactions, and gestures are fleeting and thus deny the opportunity to fully study and understand.  Yet, social media has helped me understand what it is that I do and how it is when I interact with people (for good and for bad).  And that is a fascinating opportunity to get a more defined sense of who I am.

I write this, like I write so many other things, because I believe there are many more like me and who have yet to put pen to pad (or fingers to keys) but still find what I have to say resonating with their own experience.  If that is the case, please speak up in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter (@leaton) or elsewhere on social media.  I would love to know that I'm not the only one out there finding that social media is informing and improving our sensitivity.




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