Emotion + Intellect + Civility = Longed-For Social Media Oasis

By Melissa Ludtke

In a fit of pique at a girlfriend’s rejection, Mark Zuckerberg coded “Facemash” in his college dorm room in October 2003. A few variations later, he’d invented Facebook, which went public nearly a decade ago (September 26, 2006). It wasn’t until last Saturday that I glimpsed its full potential. That’s when a serendipitous digital hand-off of my Medium essay landed me on Connie Schultz’s Facebook page. There I discovered an online oasis where civility, if not always attained, remains the goal.

At first, it feels like I landed in Oz. A heart? Courage? A brain? Each I find in what seems like magical abundance. Connie, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and author, acts as moderator, modeling empathy that community members emulate. Meaty comments flow in conversation. I am thrilled to see the hope that I’d expressed in my essay being realized in the sharing of experiences, thoughts and feelings of people coping with the incivility, what I’d called the meanness, we find enveloping us.

By evening I know there’s nothing magic about what’s happening in this online space or in my journey to get here. This isn’t Oz. It’s better; it’s a place where people flock by the thousands hoping to experience civility. I feel grateful to the generous people whose online sharing steered me here and delight in knowing my words brought connection. And the gift Connie is giving me isn’t a dream that comes with tapping ruby slippers. It’s better; a longed-for opportunity to watch somebody skillfully ply the levers of civility.

As in our daily lives, online civility happens only when enough of us engage in acts of human kindness — offering empathy, showing respect, reaching out to lift someone up. There’s nothing magic about this. It’s what human beings are meant to do. It is hard, often unrecognized work of being human, and when we falter, as so often we do, we weaken what binds us together.

To pass forward Connie’s gift, I am mapping the path of this unexpected journey, illuminating acts of kindness shown to me along the way.

My Unexpected Journey

On Tuesday, August 9, I published my Medium essay, “Feeling Unhinged,” writing, in part, the following:

“Meanness abounds. My friends write op-eds, and before their words are even published, they assure me they won’t read the comments. Why bother? Too often descent into hate-filled, argumentative diatribe is rapid. Civility is boring. Not edgy click bait. Forget manners, and certainly don’t expect a thank you.”
JAWS members come together at our annual “camp.”

After posting my essay on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed, I sent the URL to the JAWS (Journalism and Women’s Symposium) listserv, where members convene for to talk online about what’s on their minds. Mostly it’s journalism. That day I felt like sharing my thoughts with friends.

My email generated some heartfelt responses and social media shares. Responses were sent via the “reply all” feed that JAWS member Connie Schultz receives. On Saturday morning, she sent this email via the JAWS thread.

As I do when a JAWS friend shares a story of mine on social media, I paused to take a look.

Connie’s kind introduction touched me. Soon my eyes traveled to the flurry of comments arriving. Scrolling to catch up with the conversation, I found myself experiencing empathy in action. I marveled at Connie’s human touch as she gently prodded with her replies, spurring contemplation, deepening the discourse. With her words, she eased commenters into sharing follow-up thoughts they might otherwise hesitate to do. All of this enriched dialogue while inching it forward.

I reveled in my accidental discovery. Here was a vibrant mix of emotion and intellect nested in a mesh of civility, precisely the absence I’d lamented in my essay. It was proving to be one heck of a conversation. A man questioned whether individuals seeking understandable refuge from hate-filled speech could be part of a solution:

“I’ve got too many albums full of pictures of murdered European relatives to think that kindness will always prevail. So the dilemma I find myself facing is how to preserve in the personal sphere the values that I cherish while not shying away in the public sphere from fighting what seems like a battle for the soul of our country. And it’s a battle that many countries have lost with horrible consequences. Is turning inward enough?”

Connie replied:

“No, turning inward is not enough. Therein lies the challenge. How to take care of ourselves while staying in the fight. If we care, we must be in the arena.”

Connie then asked a mom, “How do you counter this in ways that can help your child navigate the world?” This query released a gush of replies from people wanting to share acts of intentional kindness made as counterweights to the incivility they find surrounding them.

A while later this back-and-forth took place.

“Your page is a haven for me,” Jenn writes.

For me, it’s become one, too.

Reading on, I came to an exchange speaking to how as we protect ourselves from incivility we can also engage in the challenging work of constructing civil communities. In replying to Anne, who’d asked about Connie how she copes with uncivil detractors’ in the comments to her columns, Connie reveals her strategy of self-protection:

“The only comments sections I regularly read are the threads on my Facebook wall. I started this experiment several years ago by opening my wall to the public. We’ve had our moments with hateful trolling, but overall this community, with its emphasis on spirited, civil discussion, has exceeded all of my expectations.”

By Monday morning Connie is inviting her Facebook friends to weigh in on the fires and riots in Milwaukee that happened after police shot a black man. Among the words she quotes from a New York Times story are these:

“for many in the city’s marginalized black community, it was an explosive release decades in the making.”

Race is an explosive topic, seldom more so than when views are aired on social media. Connie’s Facebook community proves no exception, nor do her efforts to prod conversation toward civility fully succeed. “We engage with civility,” Connie replies to one comment. “To state the painfully obvious, that means we don’t call our fellow human beings animals.” Replying to another, she writes: “the word ‘thug’ is banned from my wall. Please edit your comment.” Her reply inflames others and a defender of using “thug” writes: “Connie Schultz Sometimes it seems you live in an Ivory Tower and not in the real world. You ban!! words!”

Connie does delete some words (and posts), though very few. And when she does this, she explains why. A few hours later, she posts words on this same topic that she’d shared last year:

“Several commenters on my Facebook page in the last few days have used the term ‘libtard.’ I deleted those comments, and I’m sharing my January 2015 post to help explain why — for those who need a reason.”
To explain why she deletes the word “libtard” from her Facebook feed, Connie Schultz shares words and a photo that she’d posted in 2015 when confronted with the same descriptor.

Back on the Milwaukee thread, civility shows a few cracks. Connie is trying to douse a few brush fires. Yet, as we know, to extinguish spreading wildfires on social media, as in our daily lives, requires that societal downpours of empathy and respect buttress individual efforts. Bullying voices grow louder when individuals seek shelter from the hate-filled racket and won’t venture into the public arena.

I’m grateful for my unexpected journey; I’ve seen what civility can be like online and appreciate even more the extremely hard work required by each of us if we are going to get all of us there more often.

Melissa Ludtke, a veteran, award-winning journalist, is the creator and producer of “Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods,” a digital documentary storytelling project and curriculum. The desert oasis photo is from the website Feel the Planet. Other visuals are screen grabs made by the author.