When I read old novels from the turn of the last century, it’s a kick to see that they didn’t really have protocols in place on how to answer the phone yet.
Some of them answered with the name of the family that lived there: “Smith Residence”.
Some answered with their phone number: “4286”.
Some said, “What?”
Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, favored “Ahoy” as his preferred answer.
When I was little, almost 50 years ago, our small town phone book had instructions in the front of the book for how to use the telephone, and it recommended you answer the phone with “Hello”. Which, I recently learned, was the protocol recommended by Thomas Alva Edison.
Anyway. My point is, it takes time to learn how to best use a new technology. And so when I get frustrated with the ways some people use Social Media, I try to remind myself that the medium didn’t really go mainstream until after the smartphone went mainstream – about 12 years ago. It’s a very young medium, and many people still don’t have intuitive ways on how to act there. I mean, my mom signs her text messages, for crying out loud.
Historically, most of us only had one on one relationships. I would talk to Bill, and then I would talk to Mary. I may, at a party or something, talk to both Bill and Mary. But mostly we talked one on one. We didn’t have many other options.
Some people had public relationships. Pastors come to mind, as well as teachers and of course celebrities – people who were watched, who had a platform and the capability of being heard by many people at once, and who were known by many more people than they knew.
But now many of us have these public relationships. And we are like the nouveau riche child stars who don’t know how to handle the sudden attention and so we act out and end up with the equivalent of a heroin addiction and a neck tattoo.
Because of the algorithms, despite the fact that I have more than 2400 Facebook friends and more than 1400 additional people follow me there, I really only interact with about 150 of them regularly. And so it’s easy to think that when I post something there, I only imagine I am only talking to those 150 people. But I’m not.
Instead, I have found it useful to imagine I am having a conversation on a live radio show, and I am broadcasting for all the world to hear. If you were having a conversation on a live radio talk show, you would comport yourself differently.
In any event, we are all still figuring this out, this mixture of public and private, and we all have different boundaries and lines. But it’s important to think about these things because right now, there is no “standard”, and the medium thus requires a level of intentionality that most of us are unused to.
Here is a concrete example that may be helpful:
It is not uncommon when someone dies for their friends or family to post it on Facebook. It makes a lot of sense to let people who you are not in regular contact with know what has happened.
Sometimes it is simple, like, “My aunt Mary died last night, the funeral is Friday.” And other times someone writes a formal obituary, such as you might have put in the paper in the past.
But the key is, and a good general rule on social media is, people get to decide how much they share. So when somebody posts that someone has died, please don’t ask how they died. If it’s important to the conversation, they will tell you. And if it isn’t, then that isn’t information they want to share.
When Dad died last year at the height of the pandemic and I saw lots of people acting like this virus was not serious, it was important to me that you know he died from COVID. That he was a First Responder and caught this virus while caring for people who were dying from this virus was important to me. So I made sure you knew, in everything I wrote, that he died from COVID.
But I, the author, get to decide.
If we were on a live radio show, and I told you my 17-year-old daughter died*, would you say, “How did it happen?”. I hope not. But some people have no problem asking that question on Facebook, while not seeing it’s just rude and inappropriate. Do you really want me to say, on a live radio program, “She killed herself, Karen”?
No, Karen imagines it is just us, one on one, chatting away in the living room, eating tea cakes and coffee. But it isn’t. We are on the air. And the whole world is listening.
*For the record, I do not have a 17 year old daughter.