Social media isn't as quaint as it was when I started my Livejournal back in high school. Today, it's a business, an addiction, a privacy concern, a mouthpiece for world leaders. And it's a huge part of my life, personally and professionally. For me, social media isn't just about connecting with friends and sharing photos, it's a bigger, more tangled web that's led me to jobs working in television, speaking gigs around the country, and it's even helped me land my first book deal!
But as easy as it is to make jokes and share stories online, sometimes I feel like my Wi-Fi connection is making it even harder to talk to people I know, and care about, in my real life. The truth is that the performative nature of social media can turn even the simplest conversations into a WWE style cage match with emojis and internet slang taking the place of pratfalls and over the top costumes. Instead, if more of us took time away from the social media town square, or better yet, talked in person, maybe we'd all handle our online disagreements differently.
Until we all learn to do that, all I can offer is a cautionary tale, an example to illustrate how Facebook can make even the simplest exchange an opportunity for miscommunication.
A few weeks ago an old friend from high school, let's call her "Allison," posted a giant wall of text on Facebook, warning young women to avoid "girl boss." At first glance I thought she was talking about the Netflix show "Girlboss," based on the book with the same title. That I could get behind. The show was awful and should never be spoken of again.
But that wasn't it. Instead, Allison was arguing that when women refer to themselves as "girl bosses," it keeps men from taking them seriously. She capped it off by saying something along the lines of, "And ladies, don't call yourself 'girl' if you don't want your male co-workers calling you 'girl' too. Mic drop." The whole thing left me scratching my head. (And are we really ending posts with "mic drop" now?) So against my better judgment, I jumped into the comments.
I kept it simple: "This feels like the same faulty logic behind, 'I can't respect a woman if she doesn't respect herself.' Not to mention, words often change meaning based on who's saying them. Like, my husband calls me baby, but that doesn't give any random dude permission to call me baby."
Before I knew it, the comments started filling up with names I'd never seen before. I thought what I'd posted was pretty tame, but the whole conversation spiraled, becoming heated, fast. "Um girl? Since you're ok with being called a girl, why don't you leave this conversations for the WOMEN? OK??" Then Allison dropped a smirking Naomi Campbell GIF into the mix, which really gave me pause because 1. I love a Naomi GIF and 2. I wasn't sure if she was laughing at my comment or at the over the top responses. Then someone named "Karen" (it's *always* a Karen) chimed in with, "Are you really comparing Allison to a slut shamer? WOW."
I cracked my knuckles and mentally prepared myself to type up what I knew would be a scathingly brilliant response. But then it hit me. Was it really a good use of my time to explain internalized misogyny versus female empowerment to some random woman named Karen whom I'd never met, and who sells eyelash serum on Facebook? (Better question for Karen, does the serum work?) After giving it some thought, I felt confident answering no to both.
I scrolled through the comments, trying to figure out where things had gone left. The person at the center of this whole nonsense debate, Allison, was someone I'd always gotten along with. The idea of our friendship being sullied by such a silly exchange made me cringe.
It was then that I remembered a mantra I'd heard over and over years ago while working from home, writing for a social justice website. "Elevate the medium, elevate the conversation." or ETMETC. Because we didn't have the luxury of walking over to someone's desk to squash a disagreement, ETMETC was basically a fancy acronym for, "when s**t gets real, take it offline." If something went down in group chat, we'd move to private message. If that didn't work, we'd hop on the phone or FaceTime. While it didn't solve every issue, it certainly spared us the wasted time and energy that inevitably comes along with trying to express yourself through text.
Since I didn't have the option of calling Allison up, I opted to send her a private message, hoping the pressure of not having an audience would make the conversation easier. Thankfully, I was right. Allison agreed the whole conversation was silly, and made worse by the fact that random people (looking at you, Karen) were butting in to offer their hot take on what should've been a relatively mild conversation. We exchanged a few messages, both taking responsibility for how tone and nuance can be lost online, and then ended up having a great conversation.
I realize this situation turned out better than most, but it was a welcome reminder to step back, "elevate the medium," and talk in person. Maybe that way, more of us could walk away feeling like we'd handled our grievances like a boss. A gender neutral boss, of course.