Recently I have been thinking a great deal about those engaged in social media, particularly those who feel hurt or isolated in some way. Some of these people turn to social media for an outlet, to make connections to help them with their troubles, and some turn that hurt into motivations to attack others. So yesterday I posted a question to my Twitter followers, asking whether they would follow or befriend someone on social media out of a sense of charity. I was surprised to receive a huge range of responses, and these generally fell into two camps.
The overwhelming majority of those who responded said they would not connect with someone, such as following them on Twitter or befriending them on Facebook, simply because they seemed a bit out of place and had few connections. To do so was described, among other things, as potentially patronizing, or encouraging stalker behavior, particularly because the more active one becomes in social media, the more often one does not actually know all of the people with whom one interacts online in real life. These respondents indicated that while they might be willing to interact with someone who appears to be alone or friendless, a feeling of empathy alone was viewed as too transitory a basis for creating a relationship that in the end could not hope to be real.
The other, much smaller group of respondents, suggested that connecting with someone who seemed shy, lonely, or non-adept when it came to using social media, was a good thing, but needed to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Pity was not seen as a legitimate reason to establish an online relationship with someone else, in this view, but it was however legitimate to consider whether a great deal of good could be done to encourage someone else by making such a connection, provided there were other commonalities. Apart from celebrities, of course, most people get their start on social media platforms with few connections, and so as was rightly pointed out, everyone has to start somewhere.
In the end though the single best response I received was one which does not answer the question I began with, but which goes to the heart of the matter: we have to remember that each of these accounts is run by a human being. Whether the person is famous and has thousands of friends or followers, or whether they have no friends or followers at all, or even if they are a troll, i.e. someone attacking others online for whatever reason, these are all our brethren, with souls and consciences, thoughts and feelings, needs and wants. After a fashion, this even includes the infamous Twitter spambots, i.e. those accounts set up to automatically send links to how one can get a cheap mortgage from some bank in Vietnam or how one can purchase a bride from Russia. Even if those spam-sending accounts are automated, they were of course set up by human beings.
Unless one feels a compelling need to go out and minister online to those who are lonely, in sorrow, and so on – and I know some who in fact do this – most of us are not called upon to befriend, follow, or connect with everyone online who happens to reach out and connect with us in some way. That would be decidedly odd, and ultimately unsustainable. However it is also decidedly too easy, through the anonymity of the internet, to treat each other as though we were androids.
None of us are going to achieve perfection on social media – whatever that might look like – any more than we are in real life. We do not have to always accept social media connections out of charity, any more than we always have to sit idly by and allow someone to spout untruths or insults at us without responding to them. Whatever your problem is, if you bring it to me online in social media, the way that you bring it to me is going to determine, at least to some extent, how I respond to you. Hopefully I do so with charity, or where necessary with some aspect of restraint, but let’s face it: both of those can be difficult, at times.
That being said, recalling the fact that behind each of these accounts is an individual, ought to give us at least a moment’s pause. We ought all, this scrivener included, to take a bit more time for the sake of civility to try to think of a measured response, whether we are expressing support or criticism. This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, because if each of us active on social media is, in effect, a creative contributor, then we ought equally to be aware that what we put out into the world has consequences. Sometimes the consequences can include drawing people to do us, and sometimes the exact opposite.
Being aware of this fact, then we must also be aware that if the medium drags down the culture, because it is not being well-used by ourselves and others, then surely it is our job to try to pull it back up again. Perhaps a kind word to the fellow with 5 followers, or a restrained word to the fellow with 10,000 who is spouting garbage, may be a far better response than either ignoring or simply blindly attacking. These are not simply avatars who type, but human beings just like ourselves.
“Baucis’ Landscape” by René Magritte (1966)
Menil Collection, Houston