This post is the practical portion of the much MUCH longer post found here.
I’m going to suggest some rules to follow that may help you avoid inviting that depressing spirit of contention into your thoughts. You know the one I mean – that negative feeling that comes after hours of writing emotional responses to online comments. These rules aren’t perfect, and I know I’ve failed to follow them perfectly, but I think that they will help most of us be better digital neighbors and focus on charitable speech while retaining the freedom our knowledge gives us.
RULE 1: RESPECT PERSONAL SPACE.
I find that most people feel very personally about the things they share on social media. I don’t fully understand the psychology behind it, but when somebody puts something online, it’s personal. Our challenge is knowing how to respond to those things that others share which are Wrong. Rule 1 says you don’t confront them within their own space. To use Facebook as an example, if my cousin Joe shares a meme that says all Republicans are racist, I don’t challenge him by commenting directly on his meme. This leads only to defensiveness and doubling down on incorrect, or even bigoted beliefs.
“But how do we stand up for what is right?” you ask.
The answer is you use your own personal space. Share good information there. Let people approach the information at their own pace. Maybe they’ll like your post. Maybe they’ll ignore it. Who knows. But the relationship is more likely to be preserved and the post doesn’t feel as confrontational.
RULE 2: DIVIDE AND CONQUER.
Most social media sites will let you create groups from your followers / friends. If you find you just can’t help but share something political, but you know several people who will only be offended by it, then create groups. You can choose to include or exclude your groups with every post. That means your liberal friends will never know you own guns and your conservative friends will never know you support legalizing marijuana.
RULE 3: TALK LIKE A PRIMARY TEACHER.
Text-based communication sucks because people can’t get all the non-verbal cues that come with face-to-face interactions. This means that if you’re writing about something that already has them angry, there’s a good chance your friends will think you have an angry “voice” while they read whatever you write. Take the time to explain not only what you want to say, but how you intend to say it. Explain how much you value your friends and try to foresee any ways that feelings may be hurt. It is worth both starting and finishing your social media posts with these disclaimers, reminding your friends once again that there is no insult intended.
RULE 4: SELF EVALUATE.
For me it’s my eyebrows. If I’m writing on social media, and my eyebrows are raised, I know I’m not writing with a charitable spirit. I’m writing to win, or prove a point, or put somebody in their place. Whatever your cues may be, check your emotional state while you interact. Nothing is so important it needs to be responded to in the same day. Take as long as it needs to be able to honestly ask yourself, “Is this response making things better?”
RULE 5: HAVE THE STRENGTH TO WALK AWAY.
This can be HARD, especially after somebody has engaged with you. But this is a fundamental of good social media etiquette. You don’t need to make a parting jab or say “I won’t respond to any more comments,” or anything. Just leave it. Your soul is worth more than the tarnish these negative interactions cause.
As a part of this, have the courage to unfollow, unfriend, or block people who bring out the attack impulse in you. In many situations you can let them remain “friends” with you, but simply stop seeing what they have to say. Don’t be ashamed of this. Relationships are not about points or winning. You do what helps you interact with them in the healthiest way possible, even if the most healthy way possible is face-to-face interactions only.
Consider the following advice about cyberspace interactions from Elder Bednar:
“For your happiness and protection, I invite you to study more diligently the doctrine of the plan of salvation—and to prayerfully ponder the truths we have reviewed. I offer two questions for consideration in your personal pondering and prayerful studying:
“1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
“2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?
“You will receive answers, inspiration, and instruction from the Holy Ghost suited to your individual circumstances and needs.”
RULE 6: SEEK IN-PERSON CONTACT.
Oh, how challenging this is for introverts like me. But it is so valuable, and so much more real and meaningful to have face-to-face interactions. You will find that social media interactions are smoothed over greatly when regular contact is made in other ways.