I grow increasingly suspicious of speaking to others digitally, at least in written form — comments, DMs, texts. It has in fact been 1.5 years since I last replied to a comment on socials, and in that time have attempted to reduce texting and similar private exchanges. Imagine that, a writer who doesn’t believe in written communication.
The motive for these life changes were largely outlined in Designing a New Social Media Platform:
As everyone has likely noticed, we don’t speak to each other online the way we do in person. We’re generally nastier due to the Online Disinhibition Effect; the normal inhibitions, social cues, and consequences that keep us civil and empathetic in person largely don’t exist. We don’t see each other the same way, because we cannot see each other. Studies show that, compared to verbal communication, we tend to denigrate and dehumanize other people when reading their written disagreements, seeing them as less capable of feeling and reason, which can increase political polarization. We can’t hear tone or see facial expressions, the eyes most important of all, creating fertile ground for both unkindness and misunderstandings. In public discussions, we also tend to put on a show for spectators, perhaps sacrificing kindness for a dunk that will garner likes. So let’s get rid of all that, and force people to talk face-to-face.
Circling back to these points is important because they obviously apply not only to social media but to texting, email, dating apps, and many other features of modern civilization. We all know how easy it is for a light disagreement to somehow turn into something terribly ugly when texting a friend, partner, or family member. It happens so fast we’re bewildered, or angered that things spiraled out of control, that we were so inexplicably unpleasant. It needn’t be this way. Some modes of communication are difficult to curb — if your job involves email, for instance — but it’s helpful to seek balance. You don’t have to forsake a tool completely if you don’t want to, just use it differently, adopt principles. A good rule: at the first hint of disagreement or conflict, stop. (Sometimes we even know it’s coming, and can act preemptively.) Stop texting or emailing about whatever it is. Ask to Facetime or Zoom, or meet in person, or call (at least you can hear them). Look into their eyes, listen to their voice. There are things that are said via text and on socials that would simply never be said in person or using more intimate technologies.
Progress will be different for each person. Some would rather talk than text anyway, and excising the latter from their lives would be simple. Others may actually be able to email less and cover more during meetings. Some enviable souls have detached themselves from social media altogether — which I hope to do at some point, but have found a balance or middle ground for now, since it’s important to me to share my writings, change the way people think, draw attention to political news and actions, and keep track of what local organizations and activists are up to (plus, my job requires social media use).
Changing these behaviors is key to protecting and saving human relationships, and maybe even society itself. First, if there’s an obvious way to avoid firestorms with friends and loved ones, keeping our bonds strong rather than frayed, we should take it. Second, the contribution of social media to political polarization, hatred, and misinformation since 2005 (maybe of the internet since the 1990s) is immeasurable, with tangible impacts on violence and threats to democracy. Society tearing itself apart due at least partially to this new technology sounds less hyperbolic by the day.
And it’s troubling to think that I, with all good intentions, am still contributing to that by posting, online advocacy perhaps having a negative impact on the world alongside an important positive one. What difference does it really make, after all, to share an opinion but not speak to anyone about it? Wouldn’t a social media platform where everyone shared their opinions but did not converse with others, ignored the comments, be just as harmful to society as a platform where we posted opinions and also went to war in the comments section? Perhaps so. The difference may be negligible. But in a year and a half, I have not engaged in any online debate or squabble, avoiding heated emotions toward individuals and bringing about a degree of personal peace (I have instead had political discussions in person, where it’s all more pleasant and productive). If I could advocate for progressivism or secularism while avoiding heightened emotions toward individual pious conservatives, whether friends or random strangers, they could do the same, posting and opining while sidestepping heightened emotions toward me. This doesn’t solve the divisiveness of social media — the awful beliefs and posts from the other side (whichever that is for you) are still there. Plenty of harmful aspects still exist beside the positive ones that keep us on. But perhaps it lowers the temperature a little.