Fostering Civil Spaces on Social Media

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Social Media: Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay, [CC0 1.0]

Several good friends have recently announced their intention to leave Facebook until after the U.S. national elections in November. Their reason is their own mental health. The level of argument, vicious attacks, false or misleading claims, and fake news are putting off increasing numbers who once thought these sights to be a fun and social way to keep up with friends. Is that the way it has to be?

In recent years I’ve been increasingly involved both as a participant and a page administrator on Facebook and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good has been conversations, particularly around books, where people have shared about their love of books, what they love reading, what they don’t (and these can be polar opposites), and discussions where people learn from each other, and about new genres of literature and authors they might like and learn from.

The bad have been arguments where people go beyond reasoned and vigorous exchanges to slogans, epithets, and dismissive remarks in increasingly heated exchanges. Others often just shut down and leave.

The ugly comes when people resort to personal attacks on the character of each other, or of other figures, or even bullying and abusive behaviors.

What have I learned about creating civil spaces?

  1. If you are expecting perfection, forget it. People have bad days. Some people only want to assert an idea without defending it. People misunderstand each other. There are “trolls” and downright mean people. The truth is, we have bad days with the people who are closest to us.
  2. Probably the best thing that can be done is to have clear rules about posting online. Social media researcher J. Nathan Matias has found that clear posting rules with clear consequences both reduce harassment and increase participation. On my book page, I bar any personal attacks, profanity, and bullying, and any “marketing” posts for books (open that door and that is all you get). Others can include things like off-topic posting. Positively, I encourage respectful dialogue, and focusing on our common love of books. I think it doesn’t hurt to remind people why a group exists.
  3. Moderators or page administrators have to be willing to enforce rules. This is easier when you have them. It can mean shutting down toxic threads, deleting posts that violate your rules, and posting reminders about page or group rules when needed. I try to send a friendly message to those who break rules the first time. With most people that’s enough. Often they even apologize, especially when they realize they are dealing with a person rather than an algorithm. The only person I ever banned was someone who called another member “stupid.” When I messaged him about it, he called me “stupid.” NEVER call page admins names!
  4. Watch “vigorous” interactions closely. I try to let them go as long as they don’t degenerate to name-calling or personal attacks.
  5. Learn the limit’s of your particular page or group’s capacity and exceed them at your peril! Sometimes you discover them when you exceed them! I’ve found you can talk religion as long as you don’t go negative on others. Politics–forget it in this climate. Controversial issues? Sometimes, the issue is how “in your face” the post or comment is to opposing positions.
  6. On pages I curate, I try to mix it up to allow for diversity–serious with light, posts appealing to a variety of interests, posts from diverse authors and sources, with a healthy dose of humor–even if it is lame! While we have basic page standards, I want people to know that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber but a place where different people can meet.
  7. I try to promote engagement. Sometimes over a hundred people respond to the “Question of the Day” on my page, and many others check out the contributions.
  8. I avoid commenting on many posts except when I’m directly asked a question. I want people to have a sense that the page is about all of us, not just me.

And a few things about other pages and groups:

  1. Know and follow the page rules and never cross the admins.
  2. Engage what others post as well as respond when people engage you. Be friendly, and a little humor never hurts as long as it is not belittling to the other person.
  3. Don’t be that person who talks incessantly, or dominates posts.
  4. Learn to distinguish between things you disagree with, or are different from your experience, and genuinely objectionable behavior where you are disrespected. Don’t get into it with with such folks–just message the admin. They may not immediately spot your interaction if there is a lot of activity. This is what they get paid the big bucks for (usually nothing!).

Mostly, it comes down to the things that make for good conversations in any setting. Funny how we forget these when we are online. That, I suppose, is where the rules really help.

One final thing. Kindness never hurts.  Often when there is an unexpectedly strong response, there is often more going on than meets the eye. For example, someone responded very strongly to an article I posted on vaccines one time. As we interacted, I discovered the reason why. The person had lost a family member to an extreme reaction to the vaccine. The conversation moved from a discussion that could be controversial to a connection with the deep pain that comes from loss. A saying that is variously attributed is perhaps a good thing to remember in all our online interactions:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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