Social Media: Where Cruelty Is Easy and Kindness Is Hard

I struggle mightily with social media. It is the most fraught and challenging part of my job as a content creator. On the one hand, I truly enjoy connecting with readers and like-minded individuals. On the other hand, that one upside feels like a tiny oasis in a desert of desolation and destruction. I recently had yet another realization about why social media is hard for me, and why it makes me worried for the future of humanity.

Earlier this week, I saw a tweet that was so laughably over the top I couldn’t help but screenshot it and dote on how absurd it was. I have a rule that I never, ever publically subtweet or pile-on, so I texted the tweet to a friend instead with the intention of having a good laugh. I won’t reveal who made the tweet, but it was in response to some toxic drama in the YA fiction world. As is so often the case on social media, a reasonable and interesting conversation (racism and bigotry in classic literature) turned into a comic display of vitriol. The tweet thread read, in part,

You disgusting worms, I can read in TWELVE DIFFERENT LANGUAGES. I have a MA in English and a doctorate in education. … and EVEN I think that the “classics” are shit for modern kids. You’re not on my level, trust me. So take a MOTHERFUCKING SEAT & leave my people alone.

This tweet is objectively funny to me, but my friend responded by inquiring why I would spend any time and energy to mock it when that energy could be better spent elsewhere.

And that’s when I realized: it doesn’t take energy at all for me to mock someone on social media. There is no loss of social capitol, no friction in the act of mockery, and no motivation to listen to a conscientious soul who might object to my wording. On social media, mockery is easy. Mocking someone on twitter has never ruined my day; it has only ever been an amusement.

In fact, the interactions that take the most time and emotional work on social media are earnest, thoughtful conversations, especially good-faith criticism. If I write something and someone has a robust and reasonable critique of it, or a sincere disagreement with something I said, the amount of emotional and mental energy to engage is extraordinary in a way that isn’t true for similar in-person engagement. Online, I sometimes feel bludgeoned to death, not because someone said something cruel, but because someone said something reasonable and critical in a kind way. I had the realization that I’m so fatigued with social media because I don’t want to be cruel and the medium is constantly tugging at me to indulge that impulse.

It’s hard to take criticism and engage in thoughtful dialogue IRL on the best of days, but that difficulty is exaggerated on social media. After I realized this, I started to suspect that this phenomenon isn’t unique to me; it’s a feature of the software. Social media makes mockery and dismissal easy and rewarded while it makes good faith and thoughtful interaction brutally challenging.

When I consider that a large percentage of humanity is engaging with each other on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, and a much smaller percentage on Twitter, I’m filled with sadness. What happens to us when we all interact in a medium where mockery is encouraged and kindness is hard, even more so than in face to face interactions?

I’m not opposed to social media in principle. I still celebrate the idea of people connecting on the internet. My life was saved by online LGBT communities when I first came out of the closet. The only thing I know to do is to encourage people to spend less time on Facebook and Twitter, and more time on others that are less toxic. Blogging communities, Discord communities, and chat groups are still supported by big tech, but somehow lack the ugliness of Big Social Media.

If you are interested in spending more time in alternative social media platforms, you are welcome to join my Discord community, which you can find here. I’m generally not in the business of telling people what to do, but I think one of the best things we can do is vote with our time and focus, and reject Big Social Media for more positive options.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Leave your thoughts below, or write me an email.


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3 thoughts on “Social Media: Where Cruelty Is Easy and Kindness Is Hard

  1. I am relatively new to social media (just a little over a year) and I made a promise to myself when I created my account. I promised when the good no longer outweighed the bad, I would leave. I have reached that point now. The only reason I haven’t deleted my account is because I still have a few very good friends who aren’t ready to say goodbye. They’ve asked me to stay and I am only here for them. I’ve deleted my Facebook page & have gone through a twitter deep clean. I’ve unfollowed & blocked many toxic & harmful people.
    Everything was so positive at the beginning. It seemed as if everyone I met was my friend. I was so grateful to have this community & as the pandemic hit, we relied on each other for company & emotional support. It was like a family. We were all in it together & we would all make it through this horrible time with a little help from our friends.

    Then everything changed. People lost their jobs, lost their loved ones & lost their patience. Friends started lashing out at one another. The sense of community was gone. I was so sad. The pandemic is almost over & I can’t help but shed a few tears when I realize all that was lost. We didn’t make it out together. The vaccine is coming, along with a stimulus package & a new president. The worst should be over, but it feels like it’s just begging for me. I’m now going through a grieving process. I miss my friends. I miss the 2 that died & all those who are no longer my friends for reasons I can’t understand. I’m breaking up with Big Social Media because I’ve realized it’s likely to do more harm than good.

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  2. I quit Facebook in February of this year, because I constantly felt overwhelmed by the rapid succession of political turmoil, personal updates, pictures of cats or art, and floodposting of vague acquaintances and distant relatives. Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur, but my brain cannot handle having to re-adjust every split second to a different type of information (personal/non-personal, important/non-important, emotional/non-emotional). So far I have no regrets. The only downside is that there are a few people I’m not sure how to reach now, but I’m confident I will find a way eventually. (Pro-tip: before you delete your profile, go through your contact list and gather alternative means of contacting the people in them! Relying on email and phone numbers might seem like an obstacle in maintaining contact, but in my experience it is so much more rewarding than passively scrolling through someone’s life.)

    However, in all honesty I did start using Instagram a lot more after I deleted Facebook. Instagram was more intuitive for me to use, and it used to be less cluttered with outrage, though this seems to be changing now. During the pandemic it was a great way for me to engage with people I couldn’t see in real life, and in this period I really learned to appreciate stories (the updates that vanish after 24 hours). I was skeptical about these at first, because I saw it as a way for social media companies to generate content that was even easier to forget = generate more data = generate more ad revenue, but on the plus side they allow you to share information with a small audience, and reactions to them are private, so in my experience you get more genuine responses and meaningful conversations out of it.

    To maintain my sanity on Instagram, my account is private/locked. I have to approve each follower, and I only add people I know personally. I try to avoid having too many vague acquaintances on there, or other people I don’t know very well or do not interact with much, and I regularly revise the list. If I cannot refuse people because it might cause awkward situations in real life, I mute them. At some point I will probably also start using the option of creating stories that only a select group of followers can see.

    I also created a separate account where I follow brands and organizations, for several reasons: it’s convenient to keep a comprehensive list of these things, but I don’t want my feed with my friends’ personal updates littered with commercial or political floodposting. I’m not entirely satisfied with this construction (I never really check the feed of my brand-account, and as a result I do miss some of the more inspiring stuff) – perhaps it would be easier to simply mute these creators on my main account, so that I can choose when to interact with their content.

    The best thing for me would be an option to tag certain accounts as “personal”, “art”, “politics”, etc., and then being able to tap which feed I want to scroll at any given moment. But that will probably never happen. Snapchat, from which Instagram borrowed some of its functions, actually tried to implement such a separation of personal and other content at some point, and this eventually became the app’s downfall, because it’s not lucrative for these companies to focus on the user’s comfort and peace of mind. When I talk to other people about this, few seem to be as bothered by social media’s lack of compartmentalization as I am, so I think there’s not a great demand for more humane social media.

    Another thing that really improved my mental health was to avoid consuming media via social media. Comment sections of journalistic outlets trigger a sort of outrage-craving in me, and much like with certain types of food, if I give in to it I will just end up feeling gross. So I visit the websites of a handful of resources to keep up to date, and I pay for at least one of them, which does a lot of in-depth investigative journalism. I intend to support more of those in the future.

    I do want to be able at some point in my life to comment in moderation – without getting lured into fake discussions that are meant to amplify one viewpoint rather than engage with counterarguments – because I feel it’s important for different viewpoints to be represented. It can be very disheartening to see a comment section that consists solely of bigotry, and vice versa – one nuanced comment in a sea of vitriol can be really uplifting. (Megan Phelps-Roper has a beautiful TED talk about how Twitter comments inspired her to leave the Westboro Baptist Church.)

    In response to what Aidee said: social media are a great place to find like-minded people, but I think once such friendships are established, they should be moved out of public feeds and into real life / private messenger apps / e-mail correspondence / phone conversations, and nurtured there. Obviously people will interact with their friends on feeds, but I’ve noticed that if that is the main arena for communication, contact tends to turn sour pretty quickly. It’s just not a healthy environment for building meaningful relationships. Specifically groups that are formed and maintained primarily in such an environment seem to have a tendency to develop into cliques or even mobs, which is probably my greatest annoyance with certain segments of Satanic Twitter.

    That being said, I really appreciate the fact that you are actively searching for alternatives, Stephen. ❤

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