Digital Distance :: Disagreeing Well in the Age of Social Media

For going on 13 years, I have been connected to social media.

13 years!

That’s a stint, for sure. I’ve been on Facebook for just about as long as it has been a thing [I joined in 2005 with a .edu college account]. Facebook started in 2004. I hopped on the Twitter wagon in 2008; it started in 2006, and at that point I had Tweets coming to me in the form of a text to my *non* smart phone. Oh, and for that wonderful combination of images and text, Instagram, I joined in 2012, two years after its inception [there’s a trend here!].

The digital connection with others has some big pluses, but a few significant drawbacks as well. I want to focus on the problem of anonymity.

Maybe you’ve also had that experience where someone goes postal on your Facebook wall or Twitter feed. Controversy can even invade the gentle Instagram community, despite their profound efforts to make it as positive as possible.

Without a doubt, etiquette standards are essentially absent within the whole of social media, at least on the whole. There are certainly some resources on the topic, and a few gurus like Diane Gottsman.

That said, I have to question how many of us have really taken inventory of our digital presence. Do we really think every Tweet or Facebook post through?

I’d like to suggest a simple rule to qualify posts and responses to other posts:

Rule #1   Would you say it to the person’s face? 

It’s not that complicated.

Or is it?

Considering the kind of social media dialogue I have observed over the past 13 years, I contend that it’s more complicated than any of us could have imagined. The digital distance created when we sit with iPhone in hand is profound; sitting down at a computer is altogether different than standing up at a town hall meeting to share gentle [or not so gentle] pushback.

Even when we use this rule, I think there is sometimes an internal dialogue within the self that goes something like this: “Of course I’d say it to their face! I mean, well, maybe. But they live a long ways away, so whatever. And I don’t plan on being too close of a friend to them in the future. And there was that time in 9th grade when she.. I’m just pressing send.”

It’s the young and old alike that participate in this strange escalation, the wealthy, the poor, the over and under-educated.

I imagined people I know engaging in a recent discussion about the 2nd Amendment [true story] in the manner it played out on my Facebook wall. There were something like 70 comments, many of which were rather heated – and for the life of me, I just couldn’t picture those folks conversing, in real life, the way they spoke across the binary codes of the Internet.

Had to throw that little card in for fun.

Seriously though, I am, [like always] preaching to myself here.

I’ve made the mistake of sending out something I’ve soon regretted. I’m sure I’ve sounded patently condescending, and without a doubt there are 0’s and 1’s out there that I’d be embarrassed to re-read today.

As a Christian, there are so many important dialogues that intrigue me, that capture my attention and challenge my faith: war and peace, the environment, natural disaster relief, politics, immigration, the disparity of wealth, crime, the developing world! It’s all so available, so ever-present!

I am all for engaging these topics, and it just felt like time to posit a few suggestions on exactly how to engage-for what it’s worth! Here are a few more filters that may be helpful:

Rule #2    Give it 5 minutes. 

Or an hour, depending on the content.

Remember how your mom used to say, “count to ten” when you felt mad at someone? The same principle can import to social media.

It works in kids books. Try it, seriously.

Rule #3    Consider leaving behind the bad words.

I am a grown up. I get that there are times that may call for strong words. Yet, as my favorite high school teacher and ex-Marine, Mr. Williams, always said, “if you use the f-bomb all the time, it loses all it’s potency!”

Personally, I’ve got convictions about those words, and you may not share that with me. But objectively, I do think f-bombs and unintentional crude language gets in the way of clear, meaningful communication. There is a time and place for strong language, but it’s not every other response or post.

Rule #4    Say it out loud.  

This sounds awkward, doesn’t it?

I don’t think it needs to be, and after all, something is awkward only when we make it awkward!

The point I’m getting at here is that a typed paragraph or sentence is open, to some extent, to the reader’s interpretation. Careful use of language and grammar helps a lot; even Emojis can help clarify benevolent intentions if you’re willing to stoop to that level!

Saying your Tweet or reply out loud can be a helpful thing.


Rule #5    WWJT [What would Jesus Tweet?]

This may be a trigger for those of us who lived through the strange 1990s evangelical WWJD phase, and some of us may even have our old bracelets tucked away somewhere. This micro-trend featured the saying, “What Would Jesus Do” as both its sole tenet and its key design element; the purveyors of the ideology emblazoned it on everything from t-shirts to socks.

Strange as it was, the impulse is no less helpful. If we all ran our Tweets and posts and updates through a grid of this sort, it could plausibly be quite helpful.

There is lots of room in the world of social media for serious and satirical debate on a host of topics, I mean, these platforms were essentially built for exactly this. When we engage honestly and candidly using social media, there is a distinct possibility for learning, influencing, growth, and leadership. Equally, the pixels of our screens can become points on the horizon that simply distract us from anything worthwhile.

Here’s to online connection that is thoughtful, engaging, and civil.


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