• David J. Fry, MPS, CDT

Could Social Media Could be Tearing us Apart?

A recent social media ad stated that said platform was "built to bring people closer together and build relationships." However, today one must wonder if the “shadow side” of social media isn't responsible for much of the "division" that is touted these days.

I like to state the fact that every situation has three sides, yours, mine and the correct one. It's an important mantra as one relates to everything from kids, to social situations, media stories, advertising, and more. Most everything is slanted to the benefit of the messenger, and rightfully so, as they try to "sell" their position. With that in mind, we are somewhat, naturally divided.


By the same token we face the reality that everything in life has a "shadow side." When the sun shines brightly on a solid object it casts a shadow. Correct? I encourage people to look for the shadow side of every situation, if for no other reason than awareness that it exists. Not only does it give perspective, but it can help avoid some common pitfalls. While the “sunny side” of social media was "built to bring people closer together and build relationships" the shadow side has emerged in doing the opposite.


Social media’s shadow side grows in the lack of our filters, salty comments, misleading facts, and lack of understanding. In a world where anyone can "hide" in the shadows of their keyboard, one is bound to find disagreements and opinions that are controversial. They may even lower one's view of another. In the days of supposed acceptance and inclusion, our society has not yet warmed up to the idea of such bluntness and direct opinions. Especially those that carry ulterior motives and the baggage of past experiences or uninformed opinions.


What has changed? What is different in today's primary means of communication that could be responsible for a seismic shift in our relationships and viewpoints? We may like to blame a person, affiliation or population segment, but I see three factors that make communication in social media emerge from the shadows in negative ways.


Too Much PR

The marketers out there see “PR” and are thinking, "there’s no such thing as too much Public Relations.” Well, in the shadow side of social media, PR refers to Politics and Religion. Both have their place but may need some consideration in their usage.

I remember growing up hearing my parents talk about the fact that there were two things they didn't bring up with friends. Politics & Religion. Their belief was that those friends felt so strongly about the topics that it would either; 1) dominate the conversation or 2) cause a disagreement to arise in an otherwise positive relationship. Perhaps they were on to something.


Think about the most frequent posts (and often least impactful) you've seen emerge on social media? Politics and religion seem to dominate the space, particularly with pending elections.


While positive discourse would be an option, these types of posts seldom are rooted in such conversation. In fact, the posts can fuel immediate reaction that results in a firestorm of comments within seconds.

It's so unsettling for some in fact, that a Pew Research Center article by Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith stated, "More than one-third of social media users are worn out by the amount of political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating." It’s not a far reach to think this aspect of social media may be contributing to a bit to divisiveness, right?


Perceived Anonymity

Being anonymous seems contradictory to social media. Of course, we've all seen comments from the fake "John Smith" accounts. There is another kind of anonymity that seems to be closely related to accountability.

When a person is posting from behind the keyboard there's no physical exchange like in the old days. It's a one-sided interaction and individuals make their comments without regard for the other side's interpretation, reaction or feedback. They are emotionally "anonymous," as Webster's states "lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability."

In some of these exchanges they really don't care what the others think. Others are focused so much on what they feel, want, or believe that they don't take time to think about the positions of others. In others, they don't take time to step back and look at the comments or posts before putting them out there for public consumption.

While it may seem harmless and to have minimal impact, the reality is that the negative discourse can add to the division people feel. I've heard comments that state "I feel like I'm on another planet." Social media may be responsible for that. In years past, people weren't quite as open or out there when another person was sitting in the room with them. They didn’t necessarily know what the others were thinking. Certainly not so with social media…… and the division widens.


Non-Verbal Feedback Missing

That anonymity is really rooted in the written word and the inability to digest the feedback that is so important in communications. Ultimately, social media lacks the non-verbal pieces of communication that make up so much of what we say…or don’t.

Social media holds no facial expressions (okay there are emojis) or tone, or inflection of voice that can help carry the message or deliver its feedback. On the other hand, an in-person conversation relies on that two-way feedback to help guide it.

We've all seen the varying percentages of communication that is non-verbal, but all are high, like 75% to 85%. So how do we get that non-verbal piece with social media? We don't. There's the other issue that contributes to the divisiveness in our society.

Social media conversations are not tempered or flexible with the reaction of the other party or parties. Speaking to a room full of people you immediately get feedback and can adjust your presentation. Speaking to a "group" in social media means making judgements and comments that may provoke negative reactions before you have a chance to take the group's temperature. As a presenter, that's never a good position to be in. The divisive nature of social media continues.

In summary, social media is no different than other technologies that have evolved over the years. We’re still trying to learn out how to use it “correctly,” to our advantage, and for the most benefit to the greatest number of people in our society. In its early days, we figured out how to deal with the sunny side, now we need to realize that the negativity lies in the shadows. Think about that before your next tweet, post or chat.

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