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Posted 22 Oct 2021

I’m Right And You’re Wrong: Social Media Sins

The online social world has many benefits for the disabled community; allowing us to feel connected and find kindred spirits as well as advocate for our rights and raise visibility for important issues. I have connected with businesses and found it invaluable for building up my non-profit business. But the social media mood has changed in the past few years and become increasingly fractious. As a business leader and disability advocate, I am trying to reconcile my desire to avoid inflammatory content with a need to be authentic and passionate. The work of EDI and neuroinclusion has got caught up the wider online political discourse and I think its undermining our message and our success.

Disagreement and conflict are to be expected when bringing so many people into a shared space so it is not at all surprising, what is more insidious is the way in which algorithms direct us consistently towards things that we will feel negatively about, creating clicks but adding to our anger and frustration at the world. It is not the algorithm’s fault, the math is simply responding to what we respond to, but we’re setting ourselves up to feel strongly that we must engage and fight our corner because everyone is against us.

So without pointing fingers I would just like to name what I am noticing in myself and explore alternatives.

Sacrificing Compromise To Project Moral Perfection

In a desire to only show to the world the best version of who we are we often become a less human, less nuanced version of ourselves online. We have all seen how vicious online bullying and pile-ons can be, most of us are keen to avoid this and we have become anxious and fearful, leading to increasingly cliquey behaviour.

Beyond Instagram filters that make our skin flawless and endless posts only showing our good days and not our bad, we also try to project a moral and ethical perfection which is damaging our ability to self-reflect and grow. We are also shaming other people who can not keep up and have difficulty managing emotion and filters. It is damaging our mental health, our communities and creating psycho drama.

To be clear, this is not an argument to support tone policing of marginalised groups or say that public figures and companies should never be held accountable, it is about intolerance and the thrill of online vengeance clouding our judgement and causing us to lose out on teachable moments where we should be leaving a path to atonement. My point is that if social media was a kinder place, we could be free to role model learning from mistakes and compromise, without the anxiety that forces us to assume these pretend perfect identities.

Three Problematic Social Media Sins

It occurred to me recently that there are three personas that sum up this behaviour; the perfect victim, the perfect commentator and the perfect assassin. I have come to this from a place of personal reflection and have certainly been guilty of them all myself in the past.

The Perfect Victim

This when we perform vulnerability for an audience, which invites rescuer responses from others than can be mistaken for genuine bonding. In performing victimhood, we sacrifice our own agency and make connections with others who are drawn to the control and reward of “saving” us. Usually a victim/rescuer dynamic means that someone or something somewhere has to be the enemy and we become locked into this drama triangle unable to find real solutions or understand other perspectives. When I have done this in the past, the antidote for me is to speak to a few allies privately rather than publicly, I need connection when I am feeling attacked or weak, but I want to hear from people who will gently challenge me to see my side in a problem, not just agree that I am right and others are wrong. This is an essential act of ally ship, the hallmark of mature relationships and the one we are missing most in online spaces.

The Perfect Commentator

The perfect commentator curates self-righteousness. We may be addicted to the praise and confidence that comes with always being right. This routine is likely to be the rescuer to a perfect victim type. When we perform this role we often do not realise that we have centred our own needs inappropriately and are being performative with our values. When adopting this persona we cannot learn or grow because that would require a willingness to be vulnerable and wrong. I have certainly found myself in this role too frequently, and I am trying to go cold turkey by just listening to a debate, rather than jumping in with my opinion. Feel free to notice if I am on my soap box again!

The Perfect Assassin

This role comes out for the take down of the person who has made a “mistake”. We call out in a way that elevates the self and leads to shunning rather than learning. When we do this, we are essentially bullying from a position of moral high-ground. Self-righteousness is something I am trying very hard to grow out of. The older I get and the longer I am in business and research, the harder it is to hold a finite, clear cut position on matters of social conscience. Most issues cannot be simplified to the dynamic of right and wrong. I frequently see both sides of the argument and regret some of the previously hard positions I took that excluded others. I guess the bottom line is not judging others based on a few lines of text, and retaining curiosity as to how an alternative view would come to be. I am taking note of when I feel like I am riding on a high horse and trying to dismount before making a public comment.

What Is The Alternative?

When we are ready to move beyond the performative and desire to engage with others more sincerely over the issues that we care about, there are many in the online sphere that are already role modelling this beautifully for us. A phrase that was coined by activist and Professor Loretta Ross, is “calling in” and it stands as the more productive alternative to calling out. It is something that we all need to be practicing more.

When we call-in instead of call-out we give someone the benefit of the doubt and a chance to engage with us authentically. Calling someone out is usually public and it generally results in that person feeling alienated and resentful. It often then leads to them doubling down on their beliefs and having support rally round in their defence, meaning we have pushed them further inside their echo chamber. Another possible outcome is that we send that person into a shame spiral, a place from which it is hard to move forward.

Conversely, when we call someone in they are still being held accountable, but we are engaging with them in good faith with a genuine desire to connect and find common ground. Calling in might be a direct message to check if they mean what we have interpreted, or to suggest another view without publicity. Calling in might be a question, rather than a put down. Calling in might start with “I used to feel like that too, but recently I have been wondering if….” When calling in, we leave the door open to our own learning and we do not assume that we know best.

Combative Discourse Has Runs Its Course

In the business world, the social discourse has called us in to self-reflection on allyship, commitment to change and actions rather than words. I am not conflict averse, I like a heated debate for the learning that can emerge and we have done that in many areas, particularly neurodiversity. Many businesses have responded and are making huge changes in hiring, talent and performance management practices to move closer to an egalitarian ideal. I am all for celebrating what’s working, reflecting on what’s not working and being honest about our mistakes to share learning; and this genuine progress is what I am seeing within my customer base. Lots of companies are embracing messages and there is authentic push for change embedding itself across leadership and HR teams. This has been brilliant for advancing EDI goals, but these efforts are still fledgling and sometimes miss the mark. We need to build our allies up, call them in and encourage them.

In the social media space, our goals seem clouded by the combative discourse and cynical take downs. Right now, everyone is crying out for a bit more solidarity and camaraderie. For me, it is time to move on from the necessary wrangling that went with announcing the problems and move to the solution-focused approach. Currently social media is psychologically unsafe for a lot of us and I have a personal rule about not asking others to change if I am not also willing to self-reflect. In my company, our neurodiverse marketing team staff have had to take breaks because the ire has affected them personally. We need to think about what we want our brands to represent online and what we want the online world to look like: it is a reflection of our group consciousness.

Read more of Nancy’s Forbes Blog here.