Discussing Controversial Issues in Social Media

Almost no one gets social media, what it is, how it works, and the implicit meaning in the kinds of interactions it makes possible, and the traditions/protocols emerging in social media venues like Facebook and Twitter. Usually, it’s safe to say that if you weren’t already involved in online communities before 1994 or you are a late adopter or you are over 50, you don’t get it. It’s not required to grasp the whole thing to be successful in social media, but it is necessary to keep a few things in mind, especially if you have a large network of ‘friends’ or a large fanbase or following.

suck1. You don’t own the space. Social media venues are the next step forward from blogging. With a blog, you own it. You can be godlike with the rules, if you want. I own several blogs, including religious and political ones, and I routinely refuse to debate certain things. If someone drops in and wants to fight, I tell them that’s not why I blog – there are discussion forums for that, go knock yourself out. If they won’t take no for an answer, I usually give them a couple of shots at explanation, and then block their comments. I’ve seen really badly run blogs and, in my experience, they occur with either a dictatorial control over who can say what (I’m thinking of two religious blogs in particular) or when the blog owner focuses less on article output and more on getting immensely dirty in comment infighting, instead of staying above it (again, thinking of a third religious blog). Social media is community blogging. In a society polarized by ideology, it requires that we learn how to share one giant whiteboard and get along. If we can’t, we’ll be regarded as the diaper babies of our species. In the new world shaped by social collaboration, insisting the white board is yours will just progressively alienate you.

2. The venue doesn’t matter anymore. With social media, if you use it for discussions, it’s up to you to pick where you’re going to have them – your profile, your page, a community page, someone else’s page, etc. but keep in mind that when you post something, it goes out to *everyone’s* wall that follows you. So if you try to control what they can say in response, you’re in effect saying “I can post what I want on your wall, but you can’t respond how you want on mine”. Remember, they’re responding to your post from *their own wall*, and likely didn’t visit your profile or page at all; by saying anything, you went out to them – you published to *their* profiles, etc – which they too, don’t entirely own. Censor their response, and you’ll be perceived as unreasonable and dictatorial. If you’re in business, or a famous personality, that’s really bad business, and contrary to what social media really stands for, which is completely voluntary, but relatively free, community interaction.

3. You’re not in control. Generally speaking, you want to avoid trying to govern conversations, and also avoid getting too muddy or fighting too hard for your own ideas (because the venue you’ve chosen is not yours, even if you’re on your own page). Remember there’s usually a ‘flag’ capability for truly inappropriate material, that you can resort to silently without a lot of fuss. That will hide it from you, and a community decision will be made on who else finds it offensive. Some social media venues only let each individual decide, some let it be a consensus (e.g. it takes several flags to cause an actual deletion), and some retrograde venues actually send it to a human being. Being a boss, though, is the antithesis to how social media works. Even bosses will have to learn to collaborate, not control. When you don’t like something, leave it be – don’t respond. Or, if you must respond, use a canned, corporate type of message like “thanks for the input”. Above all, don’t react, and don’t react purely on emotion, indignation, defensiveness, or pride. Everyone sees that, and it’s like reflecting our worst appearance in several hundred mirrors.

4. Like things more than unlike them. Social media is all about sharing what you prefer, whether that’s pepsi, sprite, or coke. You can use it for sharing ideas, too, but try to avoid agreeing to protracted debates. And especially, if you don’t like someone’s idea, think twice before you add a critical comment that says they suck or it sucks, or that demands an explanation or a defense. It’s easy to speak and think better of it later (I have!), but going after people’s posts is generally out of place in social media. Instead, if you really don’t like something, translate that into what you have to offer in its place, and post it on your wall as an update, instead of pinning a comment on their stuff. It’s like a big community graffiti wall. If you can add something to what they’ve made, great. But don’t deface it. Try to make something better, if you want. Have something to actually contribute – potshots are for discussion forums, not social media.

5. Tolerance rules the stream. If you find you’re friending and unfriending all the time based on someone’s thoughts and ideas, you don’t get it. Social media is like the stream of conversation in a big cafe community, or the cafeteria in a large corporation. You aren’t expected to like everyone’s views, but you are expected to accept them. It’s not that you don’t have a ‘right’ to limit what you can hear, it’s that rights aren’t the point – you aren’t being a reasonable, tolerant, open person – all social media values – if you block out everything you don’t agree with. That’s why it’s OK to post how you really don’t like the new spending bill on your page, or your love of Krishna as an update, even tho half of your social media ‘friends’ might really disagree. They are expected to shrug and keep liking whatever things they like. They don’t have to like lasagna or whatever it is. In the same way, when they post things you don’t agree with to their walls, and it shows up in your stream, accept it. If you can’t, you really don’t belong in social media at all – delete your account and go where only people like you are – usually that’s somewhere with a bonfire and special uniforms.

We don’t have all the answers, and this writer’s approach is to post what he’s thinking about, interact a bit with others’ thoughts, and avoid any fights or efforts at control (by oneself or others). Social media is like a great brainstorming session – it’s a way to get to know a lot more about people we barely know, and to connect in ways that give us more opportunity to broaden not only our social but our intellectual and emotional capacities. Even if you have a blog, which is also a form of social media, keep in mind that microblogging (Facebook and Twitter) are creating a culture around social media that is less responsive to control than ever. You’ll need a thick skin, a nice set of dispassionate responses that can end your part in a discussion easily, and to relinquish control over where the conversation goes, who has it, and what they talk about after that.