McAdams On: The Politics of Social Media

PENSIVE -- This week’s election more than any other moment made me wonder what’s happened to the better angels of our nature. This is not about politics, but personality, and what in the world has happened to social civility.

This year’s election played out across social media in real-time like none before it. Folks with the ability to count such things said tweets flew at a rate of 327,453 per minute as the race got down to the wire. (Not “around” 327,000 mind you.—327,453.) And some of them, I do not doubt, were nasty. On Facebook, I pleaded for common decency and cooler heads, with some concurrence and at least one seriously mean name-calling. Fine. No need to be connected to that person any longer. It seems I wasn’t alone. A woman I know told me a mutual acquaintance of ours asked that all of his non-like-minded friends drop out of his circle, because they couldn’t possibly have enough in common to remain connected.

Now what’s that about?

I grew up surrounded by politically minded World War II veterans who frequently held opposing views on who should run the government and how it should be done. Debates could and did grow heated, and then a couple of Coors were drawn and that was that.

Maybe witnessing and sharing the trauma of The Big One on a national scale tempered their inclination to take such things too seriously. Then again, maybe it had to do with the fact that such discussions took place between people face-to-face. They collectively witnessed their world unfolding on TV, and brought the discussions to the dinner table. That had implications for digestion, I’m sure, but—dare I say it—that’s what mom’s veto power was for.

This is not a nostalgia wax for three channels and a hot meal, but rather an inquiry on how we might elevate the rules of personal conduct online. We all know the email of regret—some bit of snark meant for one person that escapes to the masses. That’s been enough for a lot of us to institute what Buddhists refer to as the “sacred pause.” (Though I confess to shooting from the hip and hoping the humor is evident…)

Humor, and certainly humility, was in absentia for a lot of folks during this election cycle. USA Today (opens in new tab) quoted Phil Rosen of north Phoenix saying he was called a “racist, uneducated and uninformed” on social media for supporting Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I probably won’t be able to do anything about those relationships. I figure it’s probably not worth the time,” he was quoted as saying. “But my neighbor and I disagree, and we didn’t name-call. We had a discussion.”

The bottom line is that if you live long enough, your team loses, and sometimes to a team you really don’t like. We’ve all been there, but never has it taken such a toll on personal relationships. USA Today again, quoting Karen North, director of the USC Annenberg School’s program for online communities:

“If you feel as though you’ve alienated friends and family, today is a good day to say, ‘The election is over, and I remember that we all live together and are part of the same community and society.’”

And in that vein, a Facebook post of an entirely different stripe this week made me feel both grateful and reminded of just how humbling simple civility can be. It was from one of my colleagues who endured a power outage for more than a week with his family on the East Coast as frigid weather set in. Rather than grumble, he thanked the “unknown, overworked line person who got us back up and running,” and said his family was ready to pay it forward.

I think they just did.