Communication Breakdown

Recently I wrote a blog on the potential damaging effects of social media on society (Please read my previous blog for more context to this post). Many of you know that for years I have been an advocate and proponent of social media and technology, and have written several journal articles on the topic. I recently saw a promotional video on end-of-life decision making that was developed by a for-profit company to provide doctors with something to to show patients, because they seldom have the time themselves to have end of life conversations with patients. Pilot results are promising and show that these videos are helping to improve hospice referrals, while reducing insurance dollars spent in the last month of a patient facing end of life care. My reaction is not meant to say this isn’t needed or maybe it could be another tool in end of life care and practices, but where does it all end?

Think about how many trainings, conversations, meetings, communications, etc. that you now have virtually through technology rather than in person. Now, instead of training doctors and families for how to have those tough end of life conversations with patients, we are resorting to somewhat graphic videos to do the job. Online education for all of its positive empirical data also has serious challenges to it, especially in helping professions where relational work is at the foundation and core of our careers. I mean people don’t even call each other anymore or drop by without an e-mail or Doodle poll. If it’s not on our Google Calendars, it simply doesn’t exist in our day. Why do we e-mail each other simple questions that could be addressed by walking down the hallway and popping into someone’s office? Why do we try to condense deep level thinking questions into bullet points for an e-mail? When I was a kid, my family and friends would regularly call the house to chat with my mom, and if she was busy, she would tell them that she would call them back or let it go to an answering machine, but usually she picked up the phone one way or another, because even if she said, “can I call you back”, this helped facilitate the matainence of relationships. Now, I would feel uncomfortable calling the majority of my friends without doing a meeting Doodle to set up a time, simply because of the cultural norms of today. Have our lives gotten so inundated and busy that we no longer have time for cultivating relationships in more vulnerable and personal ways?

These questions got me to thinking more about how we interact with one another via social media and technology with regard to highly sensitive topics and issues. Maybe, this is why difference is dividing us as much or more today than at any point in time in our history. Consider how much information we post and share by way of social media with people that we have limited face to face relationships and/or history with, and about highly sensitive nature of those interactions. So you want to have a conversation about racism, police violence, sexism, homophobia, gun rights, etc., and you wonder why your message, however enlightening you intend it to be, is not well received? This is not just a critique of dogmatic right wing conservatives or those with different views than I, but is also directed at allies, activists, and those harmed by what is happening in our society and how it is communicated via social media. I appreciate those who seem to get this aspect of it and are working to create a more intentional personal community with friends and colleagues by talking on the phone and offering kind words of support online and offline.  I think this is a great use of technology and social media as they become tools for maintaining personal connections and relationships as opposed to being used for building relationships or as the sole mechanism for maintaining relationships. I think the later is becoming more and more of an issue.

Many people who want to be allies are still uncertain how to do so, and with all due respect, a meme, blog, etc. oversimplifies so very much of the conversation regardless of whom writes or posts it. What often happens as a result is that allies invade the social media spaces of their family members, friends, and colleagues in order to intervene in conversations and posts that they feel like are unjust, ignorant, false, and/or oppressive, while even going as far as jumping into social media conversations in the spaces of friends of friends or friends..(Yes, this happens, so watch your privacy settings). Their intentions are generally good, but intervening in a digital space is not the same as intervening in the workplace or at a family gathering or when your out with a group of friends, and one of them makes an AllLivesMatter reference. We need to consider a these differences before we act.

In physical spaces, you are able to read the situation, understand context, interpret non-verbals, and create opportunities to engage in some deeper level conversations that might have some learning outcomes associated with them; however, you are not going to educate others without having relationships first, and likely not via social media where you can’t understand context, non-verbals, intent, etc. All you are going to do with your comments and calling out of friends and family is piss people off, which often leads them to hold on even more tightly to their ideologies. You are not engaging in dialogues online as a common rule, you are engaging in surface level conversations or heated debates, and the later one’s goal is to one up the person, not build a deeper understanding of their perspective. Consider the intentionality, purpose, and potential outcomes of your interactions. Are you debating others online in order to show friends of color or those marginalized that you are a good ally? Do you feel as though they are so traumatized that they need to be rescued ? Are you trying to provide support? Are you doing it because you really don’t know what else you can do? or are you doing it because you really think you are going to change or impact someone else’s ideology via social media?

The communication breakdown of social media is partially a result of a larger shift in how we form and maintain relationships via technology that has caused us to forget things like manners, framing, and interpersonal communication skills. For example, I grew up with some pretty racist family members, and while I chose to spend less and less time with those people as I grew older, I would not come into their homes and feel comfortable calling them out while sitting on their couch sipping a glass of sweet tea. At least not without a whole lot of careful thought and consideration for how best to frame and communicate my concerns. I would probably not scream and yell at a friend or colleague in person about how their perspective is ignorant, homophobic, racist, etc. in a way that intimidates the other person or angers them to the point of making the conversation void of any real potential for consciousness raising or perspective taking. Why then do people think its ok to come into virtual spaces and run off at the mouth without regard for the fact that you are in someone else’s home and would likely not interact in the same way if you were in a classroom, office space, or community setting? When you post to someone else’s page, respond to a thread, Tweet @ someone, etc., you are coming into their house, which means that some degree of manners and intentional thinking should be undertaken before you enlighten them with with your wisdom, no matter how on point you may be with it. Even if you are trying to be supportive, you can always message the person or even give them a phone call to provide support. Consider that the person that you are trying to support is engaged in a heated debate with a family member via social media, without knowing the dynamics and relations between the two of them, you have no clue if your intervention on behalf of your friend is going to be considered helpful or an annoyance. In other words, I may disagree with my brother all day every day, but let someone else, especially from my virtual communities, decide to go at him, I am not going to interpret it as supportive. Now, as the master of your house, you can also control the flow of traffic into your home by deciding whom to be friends with or to follow, whether you want their posts to be shown or not, etc. And even, whether to be home at all. I mention all of this to also say to people that if social media is depressing or traumatizing you, consider tightening the security in your home and better monitoring whom you allow into your home, and sometimes we all need vacations away from home, both physical and virtual ones.

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