Recently, a bad situation arose in a faith community I still consider myself part of. In this instance, it involved revelations about an incident that had happened long ago and had recently come to light. There were victims and a perpetrator and the wake of emotion was vast.
Though a few people knew some details in advance, most people were alerted via the 5 o’clock news and–subsequently–on social media. If you’ve ever been involved in anything approaching a scandal, you know the drill. There are strong takes fetching lots of likes and shares and arguments on every side. Vague, sermonic posts bashing an opinion while simultaneously advancing an opposing view. Bitterness, un-following, de-friending.
I desire to be neither vague nor hurtful with this post. I also don’t want to address that incident in particular, though it did solidify some of these truths for me and I will use it as an illustration since it’s fresh in my mind. Rather, I’d like to address openly an obvious truth that should not escape us during difficult times in our tribes and networks:
Facebook makes a lousy crisis counselor.
Social media is designed to connect people to one another. This is a good thing. It’s great for sharing cat videos and checking up on the grandkids and revealing what we had for breakfast. These are harmless uses. If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d forget everyone’s birthday.
It’s just not so great when we use it to emote.
Lots of people treat Facebook, etc. as an online journal of their feelings. Journals are a good thing, helpful in processing emotion. But imagine a couple hundred of us packing into one of our houses, opening our journals, and sharing our most private thoughts simultaneously and at the tops of our lungs. This is essentially what’s happening when a crisis hits and we flock to Facebook:
1. We’re too preoccupied with our opinion to empathize with anyone else’s.
I saw very little “I totally get what you’re saying,” posts last week. There were very few admissions that anyone was even willing to consider another opinion other than her or his own. Sure, there were status “likes” that serve to affirm what was being said. But even the construction of the Facebook page and timeline create more space for controversial comments than they do more agreeable features such as “likes.”
Most of us would never be this inconsiderate in person. If someone were reading from the pages of their journal we would acknowledge their vulnerability and affirm their feelings, even if we disagree. But posting becomes the outlet for our opinion. We treat it like our intellectual turf to defend. Opposing views are the enemy.
2. It all happens so fast but it stays there forever.
You can delete posts, but you can’t un-say stuff. The moment we press “post” we’re going public. It may not be based on all the facts, but it’s out there instantly for all to see. This past week, when the bad news hit our friends and family, there was a pile of opinion in cyberspace within thirty minutes. You can go back now and view this instant reaction. Some of those statuses and comments were not informed by all the facts, but they survive to this day online. Hurt feelings stay hurt, despite any subsequent posts which may take something back or have a change in tone.
There is so much information being shared on social media, it is impossible to know whether or not something you are sharing is accurate or off-putting or hostile to another’s point of view. It just piles up too quickly.
3. We have to start talking louder and louder for our opinion to be known.
If you were in a room with a hundred other people and you wanted them to hear your take, the only way to set your words apart is to talk louder than everyone else. On social media, this takes on silly forms like TYPING IN ALL CAPS AND USING TONS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It also takes on more subtle forms, like pulling rank on other people (I’m older, smarter, know more, knew them better, etc.). A favorite weapon is posting more often, which puts you at the center of the action on people’s timelines.
At this stage we’ve passed the point of no return. We’re positioning ourselves online in a way no reasonable person ever do would face to face. Gone are the instincts to let bygones be bygones or agree to disagree. We type more. LOUDER. And more often. You can’t walk away friends. In fact, a lot of Facebook friendships end during tough times and the social media fallout.
4. We do absolutely no good.
Remember our pretend scenario–a bunch of people in a small room sharing their personal thoughts on a subject. Everyone talking at once. The volume in the room escalating. Folks misunderstanding. People getting frustrated. The roar of the crowd drowning out the needs of any single individual.
Do you think anyone leaves that room having been helped? I sure don’t.
People processing a crisis need someone’s undivided attention (not true on Facebook). They need to hear tone of voice (not possible on Facebook). They need to not just emote, but receive understood, wise counsel in return (rarely possible on Facebook). They need to not just get something out of their system, but have something positive put back in (again–rare to find on Facebook).
Social media can do a lot of great stuff. Crisis counseling is not one. Next time a crisis hits your community, business, or group of friends, grab a coffee instead of a keyboard or your mobile device. Hash things out with a friend instead of a hashtag. You will be the better for it. Indeed, we all will.
For some tips on some great questions to ask before posting online (not just during crisis, but any time), check this out.