On Social Media: Why I Choose to Discuss Politics (and how not to)

Image credit: Alex Ingram (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recently, social media has been a popular coffee shop conversation topic. How it makes us feel. How to use it. How to cut back. Whether to quit. Whether quitting is even possible.

Many of my friends are writers and other creative types, which adds another dimension to social media use. We are encouraged and even expected to connect with readers and other writers online, to promote colleagues’ work, to share our own. For people who work at home, the social part of social media can be an important lifeline to the rest of the world.

My own love/hate relationship with social networking is currently in a new phase. After taking a month’s hiatus post-election and seriously considering bowing out of online connections for all of 2017, I’ve decided — after careful thought — to come back and to go there with politics. It’s not something everyone wants to or should do (see video and links later in this post). The fact that I’m self-employed, am no longer teaching, and will not be applying for jobs make the decision easier.

political: Relating to the government or public affairs of a country (Oxford English Dictionary)

However, I’m also doing it for my mental health and personal growth. As a recovering people-pleaser, I find that allowing myself to be all of myself is an important step toward greater authenticity (see also “The Problem with Being Too Agreeable”). My friends and family include people of many political persuasions, faiths, and backgrounds, and in the great room that is a newsfeed, watering myself down to the least common denominator of what will offend no one would leave me with only cat photos (or in my case, betta fish photos).

Also, I am realizing that few of my interests are not political. Whether I’m posting about Hamilton, what music I love, what books I’m reading, what I’ve written, my support of friends, or even what foods I buy and cook, someone will interpret it politically.

I’ve learned that it’s worth giving some thought to how one wants to use Facebook and other social networks to avoid getting caught up in the heat of the moment. These are my own personal guidelines:

  • Avoid us-vs-them language.
  • Keep in mind that labels, while sometimes useful, can be a lazy excuse for a more complex perspective.
  • Focus any criticism on ideas, policy, and those in power rather than judgment or shaming of groups of people.
  • Choose news sources carefully (these days, I don’t even post from long-trusted media unless I can confirm it elsewhere).
  • Don’t spread clickbait or fake news.
  • Be careful with humor and sarcasm.
  • Use emoticons and exclamation points when they can soften a statement or telegraph empathy.
  • Emphasize information sharing rather than inflammatory statements.
  • Remember that not engaging with comments and replies is always an option, as is a simple “Thanks for your perspective on this” — exclamation point or smiley optional.
  • Consider using different platforms for different purposes (e.g., Instagram to connect with friends non-politically and Twitter to express your activist self).
  • When in doubt about whether something is appropriate, pause.
  • In the end, be kind rather than pressing on to try to prove a point.

I expected that I’d lose a lot of contacts once I “came out” politically, but that didn’t happen (or at least not that I noticed), and I like to think that my self-imposed guidelines, always in progress and open to revision as needed, are one reason.

For anyone who wants to avoid or compartmentalize politics when online, here are some suggestions:

Do not feel pressured to discuss politics online if you don’t want to, nor to avoid it simply because other people are uncomfortable. Either way, look at the challenge of how to use social media in a way that works for you as one of personal growth and integrity. It can be valuable practice in learning to discuss difficult but important topics with compassion, kindness, and integrity.

Finally, if social media is more of a drawback in your life than an enhancement, is it possible to bow out altogether, even if only temporarily? Cal Newport gives one argument for “yes” in his TEDx Talk, “Quit Social Media”:

Cal Newport: “Quit Social Media” (TEDxTysons)

What are your personal social media guidelines?

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