Social Media & Communication: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

It seems every day I witness an example of public shaming via the internet, most often through a social channel. It's so disheartening that some days if you're like me, you want to ignore social media and comments on blogs. But this just means that the trolls, those who lack good judgment and the insecure who seek to tear down others to build themselves up just get stronger. If we continue to ignore not just the deplorable behavior but also the mildly offensive they will win the internet and we will lose.

Thanks to technology we now have more tools than ever to communicate. In the past, feedback about performance on the job, in code or at a conference remained a private conversation where respect and empathy could be maintained. Difficult messages were carefully thought through, positioned and delivered with an eye for being constructive so that the receiver could make progress on weak or developmental areas. The conversations were most often between just two people so that dignity and reputation could be maintained.

Now we level a digital axe at anyone who dares disagree with our way of doing work, behaving or even of thinking. These new communication tools mean that in less time than it takes to walk across a street, anyone has access to hundreds or thousands by dashing off just 140 characters.
We get angry, hurt, scared and we simply whip out our phone to publicize it to the world.

We hurl a mocking tweet displaying someone's code when we're confused or upset and want to gain validity that we're right. We take pictures of people we find using offensive language and tweet it to thousands of followers. On a blog we rip someone apart personally when we disagree with their opinion on a topic we care about deeply. We create fake avatars that aren't connected to our real name so that we can troll people or businesses we think have wronged us, making sure that other people know how stupid, lame or immoral they are.

I once spoke at a conference where speakers were rated by conference attendees on a public website. It was the first time I'd had my talk vetted publicly without moderation. One participant lambasted my talk for having no value and pretty much accused me of plagiarizing my talk all while remaining anonymous. While I had the guts to stand in front of a crowd consisting of hundreds of developers--mostly male--this person who sat in the audience without contributing a thing except to criticize and accuse those brave enough to present their ideas, hid behind anonymity.

Your rushed off tweet, that photo incriminating someone for poor behavior or that comment lambasting someone for their "stupidity" has an impact. It can damage a person's reputation by giving a caution signal. It can invoke deep distress on the receiver who wonders why they have been targeted or what they can do to right this wrong. It may even haunt your own professional career as recent events can attest.

I don't wish to turn back time nor to eradicate these new media channels. For it is these channels which have given me many riches: relationships, new clients, humor on bad day and information that allows me to be a better person and better professional.

As the professor of the philosophy class I took in college once told me, the problem is not innovation. The problem is keeping up with the ethics, morals and human implications of our inventions. How we choose to use tools is the real issue and one which is often overlooked in the rush for the latest technology. We focus on the product and what it can do to evolve our society to be faster and more connected but rarely considered are the dark sides of what this may bring out in humans.

I don't think that society has devolved as some would assert. There have always been been the bullies, the insecure who lash out at others in a vain attempt to shore up their own shattered self esteem. For everyone who is trying new ideas there will always be the self-appointed guardians of traditions, standing guard at the gates attempting to squelch innovation like a man overrun by ants. For those who dare to publicly try to educate or inform others with valuable information, the bodyguards of perfection stand ready to mock and deride them when any imperfection is detected.

The dark side that lies within all of us has more opportunity to become public because of these tools. Now, not everyone will succumb to their dark side but it is human nature and some will. We need to be prepared that some will not be able to have good judgment or able to process their emotions in a way that leaves other unscathed.

We need to learn how to process our emotions, how to handle conflict, how to handle moments of insecurity or confusion rather than expecting these tools to always be used properly and to be purveyors of only good. We need to call people out on their misbehavior. Since publicly rebuking someone for shaming in public is an act of public shaming itself, this is best done privately. When others use poor judgment in public, shaming another, we need to be careful not to add accelerant to that fire with our own derisive comments. When we see a tweet that is aimed at humiliation of another rather than piling on scorn, we need to tell the person to take it offline or better yet -- speak directly to the person involved.

Technology now means that the world is our community. The village it takes to create a good society has now gotten much larger and we're all responsible for helping to create it.  The proliferation of social media on the internet means that we've all been given great power to communicate. I will end with one of my favorite quotes:

"With great power comes great responsibility."

Use your power wisely.