Many of us have become accustomed to encountering online personalities and writing that give rise to an intense response – whether it be one of connection, anger, curiosity, intellectual disagreement, etc. We have also become practiced at curating our own words and images for public presentation as a way to engage with others on social media, and part of that involves how we respond when we disagree with another person’s social or political views. Often, we make honest attempts to raise awareness and learn more about the perspectives of others; however, online interactions inevitably meet their limits because we struggle to manage our expectations of what is reasonable to expect from others with whom we may or may not interact with in “real” life.
Rather than write another diatribe – the Internet currently has plenty of those – against the ways people engage online, I’d like to pose a couple of questions for myself to think about: Where do our expectations for online engagement with friends, acquaintances, and strangers come from? What might be some helpful ways to relate to online writing we come across? How can we be responsible when interacting with writing and authors?
Social Expectations in a World of Disconnect
In 1979, Christopher Lasch published a prescient, bestseller-to-be, entitled The Culture of Narcissism. During a time when popularized ideas of narcissism were framed as vanity, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement, Lasch insisted on taking a non-judgmental approach and trying to understand why people might be seemingly turning inward. The book’s subtitle, “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations,” is the reader’s first clue as to his findings. While narcissism is usually leveled against individuals as an insult, in Lasch’s conception, it is a rational response to the diminishing expectations of social worlds that emerged during an era when public life – after the immense shifts of the 1960s and early 1970s – was closing in on itself for many Americans as a backlash to progressive social changes.
Lasch and I agree that it is important to remember that for Freud, narcissism was about turning inward in the face of rejection, and yet still required a turn outward in order to find others to affirm the inward turn – our impulses for social interaction are so strong. Today, one way we see this manifest is in “(radical) self-love,” as an act of resistance, serving as a version of self-empowerment for those who have been marginalized or mistreated. Unfortunately, we usually target individuals and accuse them of narcissism without taking a moment to understand what kind of social environment has propelled that need, and without reducing intelligent individuals to mere social puppets. Questioning our collective worlds can open up space to affirm respectful disagreement, ongoing learning about others, and critical self-reflection on social issues, including privilege and oppression.
When online, especially on social media, we have the seemingly omnipotent ability to craft a public persona. In past moments, I’ve posted pictures of myself and found myself compulsively checking the Likes and comments. I’ve posted witty status updates in order to feel affirmed for being funny and intelligent and I’ve noticed how my own emotional life can be impacted by the affirmation I do or don’t receive, even as I’m critical and reflective about it.
For me, the most concerning part about my Internet life occurred when I noticed myself seeking to create a political persona through status updates and blogging, even as those actions can have incredible value if done carefully. I’ve seen others who have created online personas as well that connect to their professional and political lives and they use social media as a platform, mixing the drive for affirmation, self-expression, and consciousness-raising. Additionally, many of these people also take it upon themselves to patrol the Internet, looking for opportunities to show themselves to be smarter, more progressive or radical, and fundamentally more valuable than those with whom they disagree.
Responsible Engagement with Online Writing
I acknowledge that the intensity of online comments and the combative tone many employ comes from a desire to engage with pressing social issues. Anonymity, writing from the safety of distance or within one’s own home can shape the comfort with which we cross social boundaries and eschew in-person rapport building before engaging strangers, acquaintances, and friends in discussions that would usually take at least a short while to build up to in “real” life.
We have also been taught to respond to printed words (on screen or on paper) as disembodied thought. It can become easy to forget that a person took the time to share those words because they thought those words might carry meaning for others, even though we might disagree with those thoughts or find their underlying logic to be misguided at best, and completely violating at worst. Strong feelings spill forth and many feel the strong need to respond.
How might that need shift if blogs and news stories were used for dialogue and debate in-person, with friends, colleagues, or acquaintances? We cannot allow authors online to have the final say on any given issue, but that doesn’t mean we have to engage the author themselves, as we can all participate in shaping the social meaning of online writing by carrying it into our day-to-day lives. Sharing online writing in personal ways, by emailing links to friends and family and setting up opportunities to discuss, could potentially go a long way in giving online readers a way to engage the important issues in a setting that is much more conducive to thoughtfulness and – dare I say – shifts in deeply-held perspectives. Breaking a sense of isolation, which many of us experience as a disturbing contradiction when online, will help temper reactivity. Sometimes, the more alone we feel, the more likely we are to feel triggered by written words that misrepresent us, attack us, or make us feel invisible and devalued.
Because I work with youth, I have been made acutely aware of just how powerfully social norms are created through what young people see online. As adults, we have the incredible responsibility to practice careful interaction in public settings, including the Internet, because we are setting examples for current and future generations. When aggressive and dismissive interactions become the norm both online and in-person, social bonds continue to disintegrate during a time when we need people who will actively intervene to strengthen relationships and build new possibilities for our social worlds.
Thank you for reading. Next week will feature two blogs on Monday (8/17) and Thursday (8/20), focusing on Rural Education in California’s Central Valley and another piece on Managing Emotional Expectations in Social and Political Space.