I am the type of person whose mind operates at a couple of different levels: knee-jerk and long-haul. Maybe that’s how everybody’s mind works, but you wouldn’t know it after spending just a couple of minutes plunging into any social medium. It’s all knee-jerk, all the time. Name the issue or event, it seems we are all instant experts, tenured critics or wise pundits when we turn to our Twitter stream, Facebook newsfeed or even LinkedIn updates. The online sea of mourning and group therapy surrounding the death of Robin Williams a couple of days ago is only the latest example of this phenomenon.
Not surprisingly, it’s something others have noticed, and this particular quote from a New York Times article a few weeks ago has stuck with me since I read it: “It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything.” Take a few minutes to read the article; it’s worth your time (except do it only after you’re done reading this post, please). Want proof? Watch just one of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News” videos he shows. Jaw-droppingly astounding and sometimes absolutely hilarious.
My wife has often accused me of too much bluster and BS when I’m making some kind of assertion, whether on weather, politics or something else. “You are full of it!” is a variant of similar accusations she makes. They’re not entirely untrue. I blame the combination of law school and journalism school. Those of you who work a lot with lawyers recognize the type (or, more accurately, the stereotype). My wife is usually the type of person who won’t make it seem like she is sure about something unless, as she puts it, “100 percent sure.” We could both could benefit from adopting some of the other’s style, probably.
Which brings me to the “social” part of social media. How are we to interact or (buzzword alert!) “engage” with our friends, colleagues, acquaintances or even total strangers when we blog, post, comment, favorite, share and retweet? I’m sure there are some statistics out there showing that the vast majority of people on social media are “lurkers” or at best infrequent contributors to the constant chatter and images. (Whoops, there I go again…)
But the rest of us online? Mill’s ostensibly orderly marketplace of ideas seems more like a Black Friday riot at a Walmart. The tendency toward using overly declarative sentences (with exclamation points, no less), along with a seemingly callous attitude to what others might be saying or feeling at any given moment is unsettling at best, downright hurtful at worst. Getting along online is often tougher than getting along in person, ironically. People feel invisible, or more offensively, unaccountable once they start typing. It’s difficult to remember that there will be a person on the other side of the laptop or smartphone reading what you’ve just written. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. But they do know when you’re an asshole.
It’s getting to be common wisdom for law firms to adopt social media policies that can boil down to “Don’t be stupid.” (I’ve posted a sample social media here on the blog a long time ago, if you care to look.) But this simple — and completely on point — admonition isn’t enough nowadays, I think. Here’s some additional oldie-but-goodie advice we should all take to heart, engaging that long-haul part of our brain, when it comes to social media:
- If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
- If you don’t know what you’re talking about, be quiet.
- Engage your brain before you engage your fingers.
- You’re not as funny or smart or engaging as you think you are.
- No one is entitled to your opinion.
- Building your online reputation is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Do not feed the trolls.
- When you screw up (and you will), just apologize, and make it genuine.
Share you own lessons in the comments section, if you like. I try to remember these time and time again as I use various online outlets. Definitely forget them now and then. Hey, communicating on social media is harder than it looks. Chances are that you have a lot of great things to say and ideas to share. But sometimes, some things are just better left unsaid.