Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What's on My Mind: The Social Media Dilemma

I remember seeing a show many years ago that talked about empathy.  The story went as follows:

Imagine that you are in your car, and someone cuts you off.  You will often react by honking your horn, yelling obscenities, or feeling angry. 

Now imagine that you are walking down the street, and someone cuts you off by bumping into you.  If the other person apologizes, you continue on your way; no harm, no foul.  If not, you may grumble something under your breath, but you are less likely to cause a scene or audibly vocalize your anger.

Why?  When we are in our cars, we feel a sense of protection.  We are yelling at a vehicle, an object.  But when an actual person bumps into us, we are face-to-face with a human being.  We are no longer “protected” by a vehicle, we are forced to look one another in the eye, and, therefore, more likely to be empathetic to the other person's (unintentional) actions. 

I was reminded of this story as I spent another day scrolling through my Facebook page. I began to think that this is what’s happening to us on social media.  We are “protected” in a virtual world.  We aren’t looking people in the face as often when we speak our minds, and, as a result, we seem to be losing our sense of empathy.  

I know that for many this is nothing new; however, I think we are seeing an increase in the lack of empathy that has been taking place.  For example, I stumbled across a political post this morning and clicked on the comment section, only to see comments quickly becoming verbal attacks, the argument nowhere to be found.  Words like, “You are disgusting for thinking this,” “You’re a f*ing idiot,” “Why don't you shut the f* up,” etc.  I wanted to take a break from this, so I went on my neighborhood group page to see what was happening in the neighborhood.  I found myself falling further into the rabbit hole.

I have often wondered when social media turned into what it has now become: both an immense connector and divider at the same time (in the words of Jon Stewart). The trend was moving in this direction before this past year (though many will argue that it has become exacerbated).  Perhaps it’s a by-product of our “tell us what you think” culture.  Perhaps we are becoming more comfortable with using social media as a platform to express how we think or feel.  

Nevertheless, what is unique to social media is how we are communicating our oppositions or disagreements.  In the past we would sit down, face to face with one another, and express how we felt.  Now?  Now we are communicating with a computer screen between us, and like being in the car, there is an inexplicable barrier between “me” and “you” when people don’t see the way the other does.  Or see why the other person does.

The result?  Verbal attacks on one another.  And when these attacks happen to my own friends or are attacks on what I fundamentally believe and hold to be morally and ethically true, I have been hitting three buttons:  Unfriend.  Unfollow.  Delete.  (I do, however, see the inherent danger in doing that as well.) And that has included deleting my own posts -- posts about what I believe in, links with videos supporting those beliefs, articles where I was shaking my head "yes" over and over -- because I didn't want to have to sort and sift through the comments on that particular day.  I had had enough.  

What I can’t delete, unfortunately, and what I can’t ignore is the impact this is having on my understanding of community.  My understanding of empathy.  I've found myself repeating in my head, "I wonder what Dad would think.  I wonder what my grandparents would say."  They've been gone long before social media made its debut.  But the reality is, even if they were alive today, we would be having that conversation in person...over "coffee milk" on the front porch.

While I don’t know what to do about that in a virtual world, I find that I try to leave it as often as I can.  To reach out to people and meet face to face.  To fight for a cause I think is important.  To pick up a poem, a short story, a play and remember the importance in doing so. But at the end of the day, I still find myself going back.  I guess I still long for the sense of connection, the sense of community that I once found there.  Maybe it still is there, and I’m just having a hard time seeing past the cars that continue to cut me off without recognition or acknowledgement of who I am as a human being.

1 comment:

  1. This is great. And so true. Sometimes social media is also a playground for soiciopaths who benefit even more from the virtuL shell of online vs. IRL.