Yesterday I had an interesting and revealing experience about the dynamics of social media.
One of my contacts in Facebook, a consultant in the Italian banking sector and a mercurial blogger, posted about a device that he connects to the TV set and emits a quite bright blue light even in standby mode, which is annoying in the bedroom when all our lights are off.
He was making a point about whether this was a design fault, and – just as a way to tone the discussion down and have some fun – I replied that it is sad to have a TV set in one’s bedroom and one should rather read a book (which would just make the bright light problem go away). I thought it was an innocent joke, but he immediately replied that what was sad is for people to judge other people’s habits.
Well, I thought that he had missed the joke, so I made my final mistake. I added a supposedly funny comment, where I said that what makes watching TV in the bedroom sad is a number of small issues, ranging from suboptimal audio to possible problem to one’s neck, from falling asleep during a thriller to annoying one’s neighbors.
It goes without saying that was the last time I heard from him, as he supposedly canceled me from his contacts on Facebook. Assuming that he was in a bad mood and had blown the joke out of proportion, I reached out to him by email but never got an answer.
Far from mourning for losing a rather fragile “friendship”, this made me reflect on how social media works and what it does to people.
I guess most people have had al least once the experience of being misinterpreted or misinterpreting someone over email. What could be a simple discussion turns into something more confrontational because the body language is missing and, even if one puts an emoticon at the end of a sentence, its tone is up to the reader to interpret.
This is even worse on social media, where discussions are exposed to one’s circle of friends or even to the entire world, and what could be a short confrontation followed by a likely clarification, turns into a pissing context.
I have noticed that people with a significant number of followers (but still far from public figures) are particularly sensitive to this. They often assume that challenging their opinions or – like in the case above – just making an innocent joke is just a means for people to get “visibility” at their expenses. Of course this is entirely possible, but as I do not believe I really need visibility especially in rather small national circles, this reaction makes me smile.
It looks like people are losing their sense of humor, and maybe one should forewarn them by saying “This post is meant to be funny. Any reference to people and facts is purely accidental”. However this is an inevitable consequence of the blurring between the personal and professional persona. As we share something about ourselves to make a point (in the consultant’s case, that he watches TV in his bedroom) we open ourselves to the possibility that people use that as an element in their response (in my case, to highlight that the blue light was not such a big deal, as there are plenty of power supplies or PCs or other devices that emit an annoying light when connected to a power source).
As soon as one gives out a personal element in a professional conversation and vice versa, he or she must be ready to deal with responses that touch on both aspects. Pausing, taking a deep breath and understanding the context both before posting a supposedly funny comment and before posting an infuriated response is a good course of action.