Is social media stifling & self-absorbed?

by Kristin on May 11, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by ifraud

Sometimes conversations get off track in ways that border on annoying. At least from my perspective. Maybe I’m more Type A than I ever imagined.

I’m learning to go with the flow, though. If I can set aside the highly logical, orderly part of myself, I’m usually able to extricate the detour from whatever I was really trying to discuss, and see it as interesting, all on its own.

I went through this process over the weekend. Someone left a comment on a post of mine that was published at Radiant Magazine last week. The post is about how difficult it can be to summarize who we are in a handful of words, as social media often requires us to do:

Think about it. How do you sum up the guts of who you are while having lunch with a new friend? What about in 100 words, for a bio statement you need to write for your new blog? Or what do you say about yourself when you have only 140 characters, the limit for a Twitter bio?

Social media demands that we put ourselves in a neat, tidy little package. We’re creating personal brands in ways the average person a generation before us never even considered.

The first response to my post, much to my dismay, was all about how social media feeds our narcissism and attention deficit disorder. Here’s an excerpt:

Reading blogs is no different than reading commercial web-sites…My Life As Venture/Enterprise/Campaign/Project/Syndicate/Whatever. I find “social networking” stifling, misleading, and self-absorbed….

Pushing through emotion to thought

My initial, knee-jerk response: OUCH!

My second, slightly less knee-jerk response: GRRRRRR!

My third, debate-oriented response: BRING IT ON!

My fourth response, written as an actual comment on the Radiant post:

Thanks for your comment. You raise some very good questions. While many people love social media, there’s much frustration and concern surrounding it, too, particularly when it comes to how it affects our understanding of community. I think I’ve embraced it to some extent, with healthy skepticism. Here’s what I’ve discovered:

1. Social media isn’t going away any time soon. Just like anything else that takes hold of culture, as Christians we have a choice. We can either see what it’s about and how it might be redeemed for good, or we can call it bad, avoid it, and hope it goes away. I’ve chosen the former approach, and have seen a lot of good come out of my interactions with people I might not otherwise meet.

2. Social media interactions are, in many ways, a lot like the in-person “old school” interactions we have—in each mode, there’s great potential for honesty, truth-telling and being real with each other, and also plenty of opportunity to be self-centered, false and cold. To call social media “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” and not acknowledge all of the narcissism apparent off-line seems unfair. (Also, I’m not sure why you would be reading the Radiant blog since you think “Reading blogs is no different than reading commercial web-sites.”)

Finally, I have a strong “real-life” community as well as the community I’ve built on Twitter and my blog. (If I only interacted with people on line that would be worrisome, for sure.) Every interaction, whether in person or on line, begins somewhere, with a few words and sentences, and builds from there (or doesn’t). The real question is this: Where do you begin, in whatever form your interaction takes, and what words do you use to identify yourself, particularly in terms of your faith?

Questions & ideas to ponder

This whole interaction has made me think of several things, that I’d love to hear your thoughts on:

1. Bloggers, how do you respond to/debate comments you disagree with, without coming off as aggressive or defensive?

2. Readers, how comfortable are you sharing what you really think in a comment on a blog? If you’ve built some sort of relationship with the blogger, does it make it easier or harder to disagree? (In this case, I’ve never interacted before with the person who left the comment.)

3. Everyone, do you find it annoying or refreshing when conversations wander away from your original intentions for them?

4. And finally, what do you think about the potential pitfalls of social media, versus the opportunities for good? (It’s a much-discussed topic, for sure, but it’s one I keep returning to from different directions.)

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  • Writer Dad

    I love debate, so long as it is constructive. When we disagree, we understand ourselves and others better. I have no problem disagreeing with someone no matter how well I know them and never mind when discussions drift off topic. I do however mind when manners aren’t used. I only had a single melt down in my comment section a few months back. Bad manners were the culprit. I hope it never happens again.

  • Naomi Munn

    I’m okay with people who disagree. It wouldn’t be the first time! I try really, really hard not to get defensive and figure out instead what button their comments are pushing inside me. I find that if I know the blogger and I see a factual error or a major point of disagreement, I’ll contact them directly rather than leaving a public comment. Saving face is important, and I think blogger solidarity is important, too. Oh, and I’m cool with the wandering…getting lost leads us to the most interesting finds!

  • Jason

    The hard part about comment debates is that anyone can join in or drop out of the “conversation” at any time, leaving many loose ends. I like sharing my POV through comments, but there are many times that I’ve written an entire comment, sometimes paragraphs, only to close the window because I felt like it was just not going to be productive. As much as I would like to debate, it just doesn’t seem like the best place to accomplish anything.

  • Rebecca

    Ah, great post! I love when people disagree with me, but of course I get frustrated when it goes from the original point of the post. In this case, I think you did a great job responding. The only other thing I try to do is thank the person for sharing their perspective and to tell them I learn from differing opinions. Because I do.

  • Rebecca

    Oops, I see you do thank the guy in the beginning and say he brings up good points. :) So great response!

  • Meredith

    As a reader, I find it’s much easier to comment, disagree, debate, etc. online. Online, it’s more about one person saying something, then another person commenting. It’s hard to be interrupted (unless you’re chatting in real time). This means that you have to (or get to) respond to what the person is saying/typing, not necessarily the person him or herself.

    I’m more likely to share what I really think online b/c I can take the time to write out what I want to say and make sure it’s exactly what I mean. And even though I use my real name, with links to my real self, there’s still a bit of a protective bubble with the Internet b/c it’s not face-to-face. (I actually wrote a whole paper once for a comm theory class about online anonymity and how that makes it more likely that people will speak out about their true beliefs/thoughts – but I digress.)

    Social media, like anything else online or in life, is as good as you make it or as bad as you make it. It’s not fool-proof and sure, it’s not perfect, but so few things in life are. Disregarding something (like social media) because of the potential for something bad also means you’re missing the potential for something good. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith, take the leap and keep your eyes wide open.

  • Trina

    As a reader who comments, I do my very best to give my real reaction/thoughts to the topic at hand. If it is in disagreement to the topic, I take care to be constructive, hope my thoughts are clear, and cant be misconstrued. Hopefully my choice of words conveys what I really mean – that’s easier for some, I am not always so eloquent. If some one is irritated by what I have said hopefully it is not due to how I have said it.
    I have found it very interesting how comments stray from the the topic at hand, gving food for thought so to speak. It is part of IRL conversations. On line though, I find there’s times it would be nice to comment back and forth, but the usual pattern is that the moment has passed.
    As for social media, new to that, really enjoying it. Like everything, there’s good and bad from it. I look for balance, and what is a right fit for me. No, I did not follow back the guy claimmming to be green and recycle unwanted adult toys….. still wondering why he follwed me… (it was random OK?) Oh crikey, now I am straying :-)
    Would like to add that I feel writing off anything as ‘bad’ before giving it a chance and seeing what could be right just seems unreasonable.

  • Kristin T.

    Writer Dad, you definitely cut to the heart of it: “When we disagree, we understand ourselves and others better.” I tend to become friends with people who find good debate a lot of fun. When there’s a lot of warmth between two people, I personally think it feels like a safer place to disagree; when I’m commenting on a blog written by someone I’ve never really interacted with before, I find I’m much more careful/less free.

    Naomi, what a super perceptive thing to do—identifying the buttons within you that are being pushed when you feel defensive. That sounds like the definition of maturity, to me! Maturity is also connected to the practice of “saving face,” which connects to Writer Dad’s reference to manners. Very interesting.

    Jason, yes, the loose ends left when someone who jumped into the conversation just disappears can be frustrating. I never expect people to respond to one post more than once, which is what’s required for a true debate or conversation, but it’s very fulfilling when it happens.

    Rebecca, since you love disagreement, I will try to disagree with you more often. :) It just might be difficult, as we seem to see eye to eye on many matters. But seriously, you seem to be very open and NOT defensive on your blog, which I’m sure does so much to get people talking and build up the conversation.

    Meredith, this is super smart: “Social media, like anything else online or in life, is as good as you make it or as bad as you make it. It’s not fool-proof and sure, it’s not perfect, but so few things in life are. Disregarding something (like social media) because of the potential for something bad also means you’re missing the potential for something good.” I’m pretty talented at imagining all of the potential bad in things. In small doses, that sort of realism can be helpful, but I’m trying to leave more room for the good.

    Trina, ahh, constructive, clear disagreements! If everyone aimed for that, we’d all probably be much more likely to disagree, wouldn’t we? I also like that you differentiated between “what is said” and “how it is said.” So important. That’s often the wild card within social media—the lack of facial expressions & inflections.

  • Barbara Swafford

    Hi Kristin,

    Re: comments I don’t agree with. I like them as they make me think and often force me to see the other side.

    Re: Social Media, It can be addicting, time consuming and helpful. I try to limit my time on sites such as Twitter because if I don’t, before I know it I can spend an hour and then wonder why I’m not getting anything else done. Yikes!!!

  • Larkinsmom

    Comments cause me to stop and think and see things from another perspective. They also rile me up and sometimes make me laugh really hard. The beauty of blogs and social media is that it gives a social life to those of us who are confined to home, spend a great deal of time in hospital, and maybe life circumstances don’t allow a “social life” outside of online. I love reading blogs and others viewpoints to keep my mind sharp, take a break from thinking about the health crisis of the day, and having adult conversation (albeit in a comments thread) because otherwise I am lonely. I consider my blogroll – my friends.

    What I love from my own blog is the comments that come from left field – a parent that is struggling and I put into words what he/she is feeling and gave them a release. Comfort is brought by to many by words and they are powerful sources if used correctly.

    Nothing self absorbed, narcissistic, or ADD about that. Perhaps the commenter needs to view the world from another lens and realize we are not able to get out and party like rock stars with the real world.

  • Jeb

    Hi KT…
    Honestly I don’t have much experience with critical comments. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing…obviously I’m not pushing enough buttons to generate them. I’m sure as I grow and become more clear about my purpose here, that will change, and people will yell at me with great regularity.

    As a reader, I have no problem honestly commenting. I try to do so in a respectful way because anything else detracts from the point of it all anyway.

    I actually love when a conversation/post/comment/whatever takes off in a new direction. It’s that kind of serendipity that always leads to growth, and which restores my faith in the inherent wonderful qualities we all share.

    I think I’ll exit here, without sharing my thoughts on SM Pitfalls. Heaven knows I’ve said enough about that. :)

  • Kristin T.

    Barbara, when I’m working on a hot deadline, I have to get all serious about resisting the Twitter urge for a set amount of time. Do you actually set a Twitter time limit for yourself, or are you just conscious of curbing the time you’re spending? I’m always interested in hearing how other people keep the social media time suck in check.

    Larkinsmom, you put it so perfectly: “Comments cause me to stop and think and see things from another perspective. They also rile me up and sometimes make me laugh really hard.” It really is such a fun, surprising mix, isn’t it? I love that. I also really appreciate what you said about not everyone being able to develop and sustain an active social life in the real world, for a variety of reasons out of their control. It really can be a life line for many people who otherwise would be alone (or without adult contact) much of the day—I know your blog comforts, encourages and entertains many such people.

    Jeb, I haven’t experienced many critical comments, myself. It’s one thing to have readers debating other sides of the issue, and another to have people blatantly attacking you, without the manners Writer Dad brings up. I really cringe when I read the harsh comments on some people’s blogs. This other aspect you mention, though, is beautiful, and can make up for lots of ugly: “It’s that kind of serendipity that always leads to growth, and which restores my faith in the inherent wonderful qualities we all share.”

  • Jennifer

    I love social media, and I recently figured out why. I am kind of new to the “stay (work)-at-home mom” lifestyle. I think I use facebook and twitter as my substitutions for workplace conversations around the water cooler, etc. These communities of friends/followers serve as a work support group, in a way that friends from work used to serve. It is a wee bit addicting — I’m working on ways to limit my time on these sights.

    As for the blog comments — I’m reltively new to blogging, and my subject matter (food, recipes) doesn’t exactly generate that kind of discussion. Unfortunately. I think I’d welcome the interaction, but until I really expereince it I can’t say for sure.

    Enjoyed your post!

  • The Modern Gal

    I always try to give myself some time before responding to a comment that upsets me. I let the inital emotion subside and then think of some polite way to offer up logical counterarguments. As long as you keep things civil, you’ll always encourage conversation. If you just spout something back, then you’re asking for a reduced level of discourse.

    And yes, it drives me crazy when the conversation strays from my original topic, especially when it appears someone’s missed the point of my post. But, I suppose I should learn to let go of that. Your other readers are right — we can learn a lot from the strayed conversations.

    The thing that bothers me most about the social media bashing is that the loudest voices in that seem to be from the people who haven’t even tried to understand the good in it. I get why people who don’t use it see the narcissism, but like you said, that exists in real life (and I think anyone who pretends they aren’t just a smidge narcissistic would be lying). But I’ve had so much good come from social media in my life: It helped me build real-life relationships when I moved to a new city, and those friends are my closest friends now; I met my current boyfriend through blogging; I’ve discovered neat places and history about my current city that I wouldn’t know of otherwise; my blogging friends helped me survive a bad breakup; I’ve discovered more about who I really am and what I want from life … I could go on.

    I guess what I’m saying is, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!

  • Tracy

    Almost all of my blogging is humor, so when I get the odd comment that doesn’t seem to get the joke, it makes me take a closer look to decide if my writing was subpar or if it just was a case of a super-literal person landing on my blog.

    If it’s my writing, I can improve but if the person doesn’t share my sense of humor, there isn’t much to be done other than politely thank them. You can’t really debate what’s funny! Heh, for all I know their comment was a joke I didn’t get!

    I do enjoy it when conversations take twists and turns but I admit sometimes I find “hijacking” discussions extremely annoying (this is more of a forums problem than a blog problem).

    I agree with Meredith, social media is what you make it. Perhaps I’m being too defensive, but it makes me bristle when people who know I am quite active on Twitter, etc say “Well I can’t imagine anyone would find my life interesting”. People say/said the same about blogging, Facebook, etc.

    What I’m finding in my own life is the less I fear speaking up and the more confidence I have that yes, I am a person with ideas worth sharing and promoting, the less it bothers me that other people are taking these risks, too.

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, I can really relate to your comment about social media interactions replacing the “water cooler moments” when you work from home. Those exchanges are important to make us feel connected to others throughout the work day, but they need to be enjoyed in moderation, just like they do in an office setting. It’s all about self control when you don’t have a boss giving you the evil eye, isn’t it?

    Modern Gal, time is a good thing, isn’t it? Sometimes I jump immediately into “writing” the comment, but I do it in my head while I’m exercising or gardening or cooking. Then it has some time to work through a few versions before it shows up on line. Also, you have a great social media “testimony.” Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, indeed.

    Tracy, I’ve seen lots of comments on funny blogs that make me think either “this is a super-literal person who doesn’t get what’s going on here” or “this person has a very quirky, deadpan sense of humor that’s not fully translating in this medium.” And this is SUCH a great perspective: “What I’m finding in my own life is the less I fear speaking up and the more confidence I have that yes, I am a person with ideas worth sharing and promoting, the less it bothers me that other people are taking these risks, too.”

    Btw, in case anyone’s interested, the person who posted the original comment on the Radiant blog, “Garbo Speaks,” responded to my response. Sort of.