How to Not Destroy Your Life on Social Media
Status, relationships, and our culture get torched when you behave like a smartass
Social media is, of course, an indelible part of life. To abstain from it is the equivalent a generation ago of not having a telephone. You cannot function in commerce and culture without it.
As an author and speaker, I’ve wondered many times: What is an appropriate way to behave on social media? I want to reach people, but I don’t want to be a gutless self- promoter. I’ve also seen, as we all have, routine yet still-shocking instances where people erupt into anger or violent sarcasm. Such behavior taints reputations and damages our culture. (One way to reduce the heat: as a rule, avoid all-caps and ironic quotation marks.)
A stranger once told me over social media that she needed one of my books to get through a difficult period. The book hadn’t gone on sale yet but I sent her a free copy, signed and postage paid. Several months later I posted a mildly contentious comment about a certain office-holder; this same person disagreed — and she vented at me with unrestrained vitriol. It was a harsh window onto human nature.
I do not swear off contentious topics on social media. But I do try to avoid caustic cracks and personal attacks. I find that much of today’s sarcasm is overused, scolding, and depleting. Of course, sarcasm has its place. It can be funny; it can be revealing. But it has gotten so overused on social media that it has transformed into something it was never intended to be: the language of everyday life. Sarcasm-as-default renders so many encounters needlessly angry.
I sometimes witness people saying things on social media that are so over the line that I fear our culture has lost its capacity for conscientious embarrassment. I’m concerned about that. If we don’t start to take back some yardage, we’re going to lose it all. This is one of the reasons I discourage anonymity online, because I think you should have to stand by what you say.
I once did a streaming video with the Washington Post about the eightieth anniversary of Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I mentioned that our digital generation must relearn that book’s lessons. We should never put ourselves above such lessons, or think that we’re too sophisticated for a book like Carnegie’s. In fact, we need the book even more today because of how frivolously disinhibited many people feel over social media, emails, and texts. People routinely fail to pair up consequences with words. That’s a reality this generation is conscripted to relearn.
Let’s face it: social media grants you limitless opportunities to behave caustically. When these opportunities arrive, resist them. Abstaining from a verbal pile-on, snarky comment, or minor insult is an act of rebellion against a digital culture that sells anger back to us. Social media giants profit from every spleen-fueled comment chain. In its aggregate, vitriol may be the biggest online commodity. Be among the minority who do not contribute to the anger economy. You’ll mark yourself as independent and effective.
(This article is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book Secrets of Self-Mastery.)