When I was a kid, I LOVED Choose Your Own Adventure books. I would read to a certain page, then I’d get to make a choice. “If you go left on the road, turn to page 53. If you go right, turn to page 75.” I’d choose, then flip to the page and continue the adventure. Each time through was a totally different experience.
The online world is a lot like that. These days, we don’t have the media telling us what to watch (I grew up in a town with one – count them, ONE – TV channel – we were TOLD what to watch, or we turned off the TV). These days, we get to choose from hundreds of television channels, virtually unlimited amounts of audio content thanks to satellite radio and podcasts, and 24/7 streams of news, information and chatter on social networks. It’s a whole new world, and one that people are struggling hard to manage and interpret.
I find the social media world to be a strange one when tragedy strikes. With the horrific events that have taken place this week in Boston, and now Texas, we’ve seen and heard more about the experiences on a moment-by-moment basis than ever possible before. This means that the terrain is ripe for misinformation and speculation, as we’ve seen from a few major media outlets and countless Twitterati. However, it’s also provided a space where people can come together and grieve, help each other and try to make sense of the senseless.
One of the things I’ve seen that’s been decidedly unhelpful in all of this are the folks who decide to give unsolicited advice to those who may or may not be “acting insensitively or inappropriately” in light of tragic events. In particular, there have been a barrage of posts on Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs commanding people to stop auto-tweeting or posting links to content that is either promotional in nature or could be perceived as self serving while a tragic event is unfolding. I’m quite certain that most of the people touting this advice are not doing so with ulterior motives and are well-intentioned in their effort to “help” those who may not be so “in the know” when it comes to online etiquette.
However, there are a number of things that people have not considered here. First and foremost was what Chris mentioned the other day. If we stop all online chatter when tragedy strikes close to home, why do we not do it when it strikes in other countries? There was a devastating earthquake in Iran the other day. Countless people in the Middle East were killed by car bombs. A young girl committed suicide because she was gang raped and bullied. Did the stream stop for those events? Not that I saw.
The point is, where do we draw the line? Of course, if someone is clearly capitalizing on a tragedy for their own self-promotional purposes, that’s inappropriate. But tweeting about your church bake sale this weekend, or promoting a 50% off discount on your training course? As tragic as things are in the whole world, those parts of life do not stop. Yes, I pulled some tweets when the tragedy happened in Boston, but I did it out of respect for my friends who live in the area. I was living the crisis with them, sending them prayers and words of encouragement. I, personally, did not feel it was right for me to be focusing on other things at that moment. But that’s just me. What about people on the other side of the world who may not have any connection to the people or events happening in a certain city? They can still feel the pain and suffering, and send their thoughts, and many people did. But do we have any right to criticize them for continuing on with their lives?
This morning I woke up to news that a horrific explosion has taken place at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. This news is once again tragic, and it appears that several people have died and been seriously injured. But this event occurred late last evening, as many people had already signed off for the night and probably scheduled posts for overnight and into the morning. This morning, my Twitter stream is rife with auto-tweets and the usual chatter of a typical Thursday morning in my time zone. Nobody has stopped, because the timing was different.
Tragedy happens in our world every single day. It makes me sad, it makes me angry, and it makes me feel extremely helpless. But for us to insist that the entire network bear the weight of our individual pain is a lot to ask of others, especially people we don’t even know. Social media IS a choose your own adventure novel. You get to choose who to follow, unfollow, and block. Every day I add and remove people from my stream based on the kind of experience I, personally, want to have. If someone does something I feel is inappropriate, I remove them. I don’t call them out. I don’t bitch and whine to my friends in a secret Facebook Group. I remove them, and I never have to see them again if I don’t want to.
We all get to choose how we are going to act and interact in this space. When it comes to etiquette, common sense must prevail. If you wouldn’t do it to someone’s face, don’t do it online. It’s really that simple.
Choose your own adventure. Leave the others behind. Share, love, be kind, and think twice before you criticize. We are all in this life together, so let’s start acting like it, okay?