We sometimes forget how new this social media thing is. The ability of anyone to contact anyone else, directly and publicly, has been a part of our lives for only a decade. In many ways, we’re all still getting used to it. The medium may not be in its infancy, but it’s not much beyond that.
Like a deaf man who can suddenly hear, we’re experiencing profound over-stimulation and a general inability to sort noise from meaningful content. Everything we see in our feed arrives with equal urgency, whether it’s a link to hard news from a credible source or utterly fraudulent clickbait. Likewise, every comment in our threads enjoys the same virtual stage, whether it’s substantive and relevant or a complete non sequitur.
This democratization of content generation has also democratized editorial responsibility. Our feed isn’t curated by a professional editor. Our comment threads aren’t policed by objective moderators. It’s up to us, individually, to both evaluate the quality of information and enforce our personal rules for digital conduct.
With that in mind, here are four principles and guidelines for improving your social media experience:
1. Relationships Are Transactional
This is the number one thing to learn, not just as it applies to social media, but as it applies to every interaction you have with other people. Relationships are transactional, meaning we seek to gain value and provide value in return. Any healthy relationship, no matter its nature — from a married couple to a store clerk and their customer, involves an exchange of value to mutual benefit. Unhealthy relationships, which we have all experienced, emerge when one person or the other either fails to provide value or actively destroys it.
The only reason for you to interact with someone else, ever, is because they provide value. Conversely, the only reason for them to interact with you is because you provide value. Neither you nor they are entitled to the other’s ear. This is why conversations between free people eventually come to an end. At a certain point, there’s nothing of value left to exchange, or there is something else to do that proves of greater value. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s normal, and it applies to social media.
2. Remember That Social Media Is a Means, Not an End
Recognizing that relationships are transactional, we should ask ourselves why anyone chooses to post to social media. It’s a fairly unique action. You broadcast an idea to an audience as inclusive or exclusive as you choose. It might be a link to an article, a picture, a video, some kind of meme, or any length of prose from brief comment to crazed manifesto. Why post it?
We post to social media for the same reason we walk up and start a conversation. We’re simultaneously offering and seeking value. When you post that cat pic or “taxation is theft” meme, you’re telling the world (or whichever slice of it your privacy settings allow) that you believe the post has value. In return, you seek some acknowledgement of its value (a like, favorite, or retweet), or added value in the form of a comment. Social media is the means toward an exchange of values, not the value in and of itself.
Remembering this will keep you from getting obsessively sucked into meaningless arguments online. There’s no point. You offered value with your post. Some will reject it. The only reason to interact with them further is if that interaction will provide further value. Perhaps you believe you might learn more about their perspective by engaging them. Perhaps you want to use the interaction as a stage for conveying ideas to lurkers. Perhaps you just enjoy trolling. Whatever the reason, make sure there is one. Not every comment deserves a reply.
3. Don’t Hesitate to Block Someone
There’s a popular sense on social media that one must endure any abuse, allow any comment, or welcome any post in order to signal the virtue of tolerance. That’s a pile of horse manure. While the digital platform may be unique, the fundamental nature of social media proves similar to any other human interaction. If someone charged into your home, church, or place of business and started shouting insults, disrupting proceedings, or otherwise acting in an inappropriate manner, you would kick them out. You would be right to do so, and it would not detract from your degree of social tolerance. Being tolerant and enduring abuse are not the same thing.
Further, even if the person conducted themselves with some degree of respect but otherwise proved incompatible with your venue — like a klansman showing up at a NAACP event — you would be within your right to bounce them. The same applies to social media. Everyone has a right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard.
4. Go Forth and Socialize
Armed with the above principles, you should be able to immediately improve your social media experience. It often translates to essentially ignoring people. That may seem rude. We may feel some sense of duty to read every comment and respond, especially if the comment proves critical. But we should keep in mind that we ignore most people in real life all the time. The overwhelming majority of human beings you come into contact with move by without an errant thought. Why should social media be any different? Unless there’s value in engaging them, unless you have something to offer which they want and something to gain in exchange, there is no point in wasting your time. Life is too short.
Eventually, as we get two or three decades of social media experience under our collective belt, we will develop a sense of etiquette not unlike that which governs physical interactions. As it stands, too many of us seem to confuse access with welcome. I can post a comment, so I should. I’m thinking it, so it must be important. Such reasoning rarely prevails when we’re physically talking to each other. Indeed, I’ve sat and had a friendly drink with people who were utter wretches online. That’s because their sense of decorum was never applied to social media. Eventually, hopefully, most of us will begin to approach social media as if it were any other interaction, treating each other with respect and restraint.