CiviliNation occasionally publishes guest posts from individuals who want to add their voice to the discussion about online discourse and cybercivility. While the publishing of these posts should not be considered an endorsement by the organization, we welcome people’s contributions to this important topic.
Michael S. Sommermeyer is a public relations strategist who currently provides community relations and outreach planning for the State of Nevada Foreclosure Mediation Program. In 2007, he was responsible for media planning for the Nevada v. O.J. Simpson trial. He is an author and former television news anchor. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. The thoughts expressed here are those of Sommermeyer alone.
Apparently I am a Douche. I obtained this moniker during a discussion with someone on my personal Facebook page after we had a difference of political opinion. My new title actually followed a previous exchange where the person labeled me an “Ignorant Tea Bagger.” I’m not sure whether “Douche” was therefore an improvement or an attempt to hit me even harder below the belt.
As a kindergartener I learned the rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I’m not sure I buy into that anymore. Lately the aggression and hostility expressed via social media has been more like a gravel pit with the words zipping past and pelting like pea gravel. Regrettably, the rest of what we learned in kindergarten – how to be kind to others and treat them the way you would like to be treated – rarely penetrates these social spaces.
I recently took a test that measured my political leanings. The results designated me a political moderate. Not a “Tea Bagger,” but a moderate. That designation probably can be attributed to my journalism training and the importance of avoiding the appearance of bias, as well as my personal nature to avoid taking a stand. So, when I do take a position on something that’s important to me, it sometimes surprises and scares people. In that context, my latest salvo in the social world likely caused this person to conclude I was the aforementioned Douche. Except I really think that is too simple of an explanation.
What we forget in social media is that the exchanges we have rarely resemble real conversations. The notion that any of these spaces is a salon where ideas are shared and debated is simply untrue. Online social spaces are really just large auditoriums with everyone shouting at the same time. It is hard enough to be heard, let alone have a civil conversation.
Civil discourse requires a modicum of civil respect. My opinion may not be valued or shared by another, but it is still one voice in the room. You can choose to engage me, learn from me, understand me, or just let me shout. Preferably, I would like others to question me, learn from me, and then, if I am wrong, persuade me to accept their opinion. Unfortunately, this is a rare event.
Some of this failure to listen in social media can be attributed to the rush to “find your voice.” Whether it is through a blog or a Pinterest page, everyone is eager to share themselves. Any attempt at listening is done passively, as in admiring a post, adding a “Like,” or delegating the message to the background so it can be returned to at a more convenient time. When we do attempt to respond, it is in the moment and our mouths often overrun our ability to censor, review, and sufficiently contemplate. In our rush, we shout above the din to be heard, and to stand out, we resort to name-calling.
When I worked at Texas Tech University, one of my public relation duties was to promote its vast Turkish collection. Hidden in the archives is this proverb: “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” Those powerful words remind us that we cannot hope to understand another unless we spend more time listening than expressing. We must work on enlarging our ears before we polish our voices.
But once we’ve spoken out in haste, we can’t take back the words. Once a friend calls you a “Douche” in a social space, it becomes personal and awkward. A phone call or email afterward to apologize for anger having gotten out of control seems inadequate.
Social media makes it too easy to rebuke a negative exchange; if we dislike a viewpoint, we just “unlike” the person. Years of friendship and collaboration on cherished projects can be gone in a click, as happened in my situation. We tend to take our social spaces and make them weak replacements for real interactions. Social media does not allow friends to look each other in the eye, share a disagreement, and work it out. Social media empowers us to stand in the middle of the room and just shout.
And after a while, no one listens anymore.