Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Facebook Follies: Why Social Media are a Minefield for Communication

I'm becoming more convinced every day that the social media, and Facebook in particular, is a double-edged sword when it comes to communicating with others.

On the plus side, Facebook allows us to connect with people we'd never otherwise meet.

But then, there's the downside. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in us. I consider myself pretty diplomatic, for the most part, but I've noticed myself - in hindsight - typing things on Facebook that I'd think twice before saying in person, and I've noticed the same tendency in others. How does this happen? I can think of a few reasons, off the top of my head.

Disposable friends: Facebook gives us "disposable friends." Did someone offend you? No worries. You can always ban, block and make a dozen new "friends." A lot of Facebookers will post glowing remarks about how they're very close to online acquaintances they've never met in person. Some will even say they're closer than in-person buddies. That may be true for some, but the fact remains that they're a different sort of friend. Here's why ...

One-dimensional communication: Communication online is much different than real-time communication. For one thing, you're not generally talking, you're typing. What you see are letters on a screen, minus any vocal intonations, facial expressions or whispered asides. Our online interactions are, relatively speaking, two-dimensional or even one-dimensional. They don't show us the whole picture, but the problem is ...

We think they do: We're treating two-dimensional communication as though it were three-dimensional. Instead of taking into account the absence of non-verbal cues, we act as though they're there. As a result, we're prone to taking things out of context and jumping to (often erroneous) conclusions rather too quickly.

Fights to the finish: Facebook allows people to "gang up" on one another. Comments on a Facebook wall - especially when they involve hot-button issues - turn into popularity contests, with each side trying to shout down the other. In real life, most conversations are one-on-one; on Facebook, many turn into verbal jousts or gladiator matches in front of crowds that jeer, cheer and hurl rotten tomatoes (figuratively speaking) at the computer monitor.

Making permanent waves: Something written on a Facebook wall stays there. In verbal conversation, someone might say something that strikes you a little funny, but you're likely to brush if off and go on about your business. Even if it sticks in your craw a little, you'll probably forget exactly what was said, and the issue will be forgotten. On Facebook, by contrast, you can go back and view the same comment over and over again, ad nauseam. You can analyze it, overanalyze it and get all worked up over it. Even a comment that might seem fair or benign at first came seem offensive if you're defensive.

Ripe for abuse: The flipside of this is that there are social media abusers out there who know this and try to take advantage of it. They cajole, provoke and mislead us into thinking they're something they're not. This, of course, makes us even more wary and less liable to give well-meaning folks a chance to add the context we need to truly understand them. Here are some typical abusers who pop up frequently on Facebook:

  • Stalkers. Follow you from one page to another, leaving comments to whatever you post. They're attention seekers who need others' responses to feel validated.
  • Lurkers: Closely akin to the stalkers and often the next stage in their evolution. Having been banned or blocked, such people generally stay quiet and hide behind bogus profiles as they engage in a form of online espionage. They feel they're entitled to a place at the table, even after they've been asked to leave.
  • Imposters: Critics who masquerade as a member of a certain group, wait until the time is right, then blast members of that group on an open forum. Religious fundamentalists seem prone to this tactic.
  • Ranters: Air their dirty laundry to the world, often while slamming a spouse, relative, "friend," boss or some other third party who's (conveniently) not around to defend him/herself.
  • Know-it-Alls: Pose as authorities to gain "minions" or "clones." Like stalkers, such people are seeking validation; they just go about it differently. Instead of targeting a single individual, they seek to build a cult-like following. Ironically, they're usually not authorities on much of anything. Still, they enjoy pontificating at length on their favorite subjects - and just as the pontiff is infallible, they tend to view themselves the same way.
  • True Believers: The aforementioned minions or clones, who follow Know-it-Alls pretty much blindly.
  • Button-Pushers: Likes to get a rise out of people by posting uncompromising positions on hot-button issues. On the one side, such people get a lot of attaboys; on the other, they receive plenty of criticism (often spiced up using colorful language). Either way, they're out for attention, same as the Stalker and the Authority. 
  • Victims: These are often Button-Pushers who pretend to be persecuted for their beliefs. One favorite tactic: saying something outrageously offensive, then crying "censorship!" when the owner of the wall or page removes their comment.
  • Advocates: People who take up a single issue or slate of issues and make it a life-or-death line in the sand, then dare others on Facebook to cross it ... which, of course, they do. 
  • Devil's Advocates: The people who fuels the Button-Pushers' fire. Their goal is, like most of the others, to gain attention - but their method's a little different.. They're counterpuncher. They wait for someone else to state an opinion, then look for a weakness and pounce when they find one. It's a pure game of one-upmanship. The Devil's Advocate who can beat the Know-it-All in an argument has pulled off an effective Facebook coup and can build a following of his/her own.
  • Grammar Nazis: Operates similarly to the Devil's Advocate in that s/he waits for someone else to show a weakness, then points it out in order to look superior. There are Math Nazis, Science Nazis and History Nazis out there, too. None of them, however, serve up tasty fare like the Soup Nazi.

This isn't to say that all these folks are monsters. Heck, at one time or another, I've indulged in several of them - probably each of the last four, actually. If you're honest with yourself, you might have, too. I'm pretty sure a lot of it has less to do with the people than with the mode of communication itself. The social media give rise to and encourage these sorts of behavior.

A few months ago, I recognized I'd begun to play the role of a Button-Pusher too often, so I stepped back from talking about controversial issues quite so much. I still believe strongly in many of the positions I held then, and I'm not ashamed of any of them. Ask me, and I'll be glad to tell you what I think. But I'm not going to set out with an agenda of getting people all riled up over something that gets my goat (not usually, anyway). That didn't do my blood pressure any good, and it probably wasn't a lot of fun for those who read my posts, either. Mostly, it just attracts a bunch of Devil's Advocates who were more interested in trying to one-up me than in listening

More recently, I found myself playing the role of Devil's Advocate, which I decided wasn't worth it, either. I'm not out to build an army of minions, and I don't have anything to prove, really, so there's no point in acting as though I do. 

I'll probably remain a Grammar Nazi, simply because I'm an author/editor by trade and I've been working with words all my life. But I'll do my best to be a gracious Grammar Nazi ... and I hope the Math Nazis out there will show me the same forbearance.


  1. Very insightful post. This deserves wider distribution and discussion. Face to face.

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