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Bury Your Head or Go Insane? Dealing with the Flood of News & Social Media

“I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.” –Rabih Alameddine, Koolaids: The Art of War 

Hello friend,

I lost my temper on social media this week. I feel ashamed of it now as I think of the moment. Not ashamed of what I said—in fact, I wish I had said more to make my point more clear—but rather, ashamed that I let what is happening on the news and in social media cause me to boil over in rage.

I am a mellow, happy guy and have a habit of very deliberate processing with my journal that allows me to deliver measured, thoughtful responses to most issues that arise in my day. I don’t fly off the handle. My opinions may ruffle feathers, but not usually my delivery. Because I don’t lose my temper. I don’t write angry. Until Tuesday….

Probably like you, I followed the big story of last weekend—the ban on refugees and travel restrictions from certain Muslim-majority countries and its subsequent protests—on the news and through social media. The nature of the ban, as well as the criteria for selection of the nations involved in it, was deeply disturbing to me and only the latest in a long line of red flags being raised in my conscience regarding the new administration. I admit to being highly sensitive to the reputation of America internationally being dragged into the mud, and also when I feel the government does things that increase the gap between the ideals that America supposedly represents and the reality we are representing in practice. So, I was already edgy going into the new week.

After the election, I had mostly removed myself from social media until around Christmas. And though I kept tabs on the news, it was a much-needed break from the idea circus that is Facebook and the like. After the holidays, I slowly inched back onto my apps and, not surprisingly, became progressively re-addicted. I use social media as much for news as to see what my people are thinking about and doing. If I watch CNN on television or listen to NPR on the radio, then I subscribe to them on social media. So, I get a mix of real news and then my friends’ interpretation and reaction to the news (mixed in with some fun photos of their kids and their food, and an occasional cat video).

If you have been alive with your head above ground these last couple of weeks, you probably know that all is not running so smoothly in America. If you only watched reputable news channels and didn’t even know what “social media” meant, you would know that. Likewise, if you were a social media nut but didn’t care a thing about “serious” news outlets, you would also be aware of the tension that currently defines us at this point. And if, like me, you have both regular news and social media, well, you are swimming in it!

By Tuesday night, I definitely needed some goggles and a snorkel.

I had watched in horror as the Executive Orders came down. I heard the stories of people unable to return to their jobs and families here in America after visiting relatives in banned countries. I thought of the many Somali families in my own community—classmates of my children—and how they would be affected. I thought of the refugee family that my church is sponsoring—we had their apartment all set up with furniture and supplies—who was supposed to arrive this week from Somalia that is now stuck in Kenya (the mother has been in the refugee camp there for twenty years, her children never knowing any other place). That part was particularly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, of course, I wondered about the fate of our schools as the Senate seemed about to confirm someone who seemed wholly incompetent to be in charge of them; and about the future of free speech in America as even the most neutral, even-handed news outlets are being warned and belittled by the administration; and about the environment and climate change scientists as they come under attack; and about whether our next Attorney General would actually stand on the side of the law and the Constitution; and on and on and on. There was no shortage of stories, no shortage of crises.

In the midst of all of the news and reactions Tuesday evening, as my blood pressure seemed to rise with every post, I read one from a childhood acquaintance, a long rant (her word) about how President Obama had just done this same ban on Cubans two weeks ago, and where was the liberal media then, and angrily on and on. This is when I should have checked myself, turned off all electronics for the day, and taken some deep breaths. But no. I let it make my blood boil, the effects of too much time in front of the screen taking hold. Even though her whole premise was based on a falsehood, making the argument completely unsound, I couldn’t just laugh it off. I was on the very edge of writing a reply to her and setting her straight, but I gathered my wits just enough to recognize that with some people, there is just no talking sense into them (another lesson from my short time on Facebook).

And just as I began to think I had done well in resisting a fight, I scrolled down and hit the one that sent me over the edge. It was from someone I wasn’t even sure I knew, but I think she was in my brother’s class in school. Anyway, it was a meme—of course it was a meme, it is always a meme—with a picture of the plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11, saying something like “For all of you whining about the ban on Muslims, a little reminder for you.” I almost screamed. I was absolutely livid! I could not let it go. So, against the better judgment I had just applauded myself for a moment earlier, I clicked on the “Write a comment…” space. I typed the first thing that came out of my head (after the swearing, I mean): “Are you serious, Sheila? Perhaps we should post a picture of the KKK performing a lynching and call for a ban of all Christians.” Return. That was it.

As I sat there fuming, I thought of other things I wanted to say to her, such as “Interestingly, none of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were from the seven countries banned by the President. They were from four other countries, all of which the President has business ties to.” And I almost hit the Comment box again, but thankfully, I found my senses again. But I didn’t let go of my outrage. I was still stewing about it late that night, tossing in my bed as I tried to sleep.

I knew it wasn’t just this one stupid meme that was tormenting me. It was all of it: the Executive Orders, the incompetence, the acrimony on both sides of the political aisle, the nonsensical responses on Facebook and Twitter, the fear that my friends feel and that I feel for them, the embarrassment on behalf of my country, the shame that I am not doing more to speak up and resist, and so much more.

I confessed my anger and my torment to my wife the next morning. I told her I was torn. On the one hand, I liked my several weeks away from social media and just a small but sufficient amount of regular news on a neutral news app. I was less stressed, riding the “Ignorance is bliss” theory. It made me think of a conservative friend of mine, whom I had spoken to just after the election and who knew I was bummed about it. She said, “I don’t even watch the news about this stuff. But at least I’m happy!”

It is hard to argue with happy. On the other hand, I don’t just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening around me. As uncomfortable as it is, I think it is necessary to wrestle with that discomfort and figure out my place in its midst.

I feel like the biggest danger to us is indifference. Not caring. Not speaking up to support what our cause or idea is (or worse, not caring enough to even have an opinion). Just quietly letting it happen to us. I think of my hero Martin Luther King as he was considering his greatest obstacles to progress, well aware that it was not the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists but rather the masses of polite but silent white people allowing the violence and oppression to continue. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

I think that appalling silence comes more frequently when we bury our heads in the sand, allowing denial to rule. It is a pleasant denial, but I am seeing now that in our most divisive moments, that pleasant denial is mostly cowardice. That conclusion doesn’t sit well with me. I think again of Dr. King, who reminded us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” There is a slippery kind of comfort and convenience to tuning out the world in times like now. Just turning off the news and social media. It is so, so alluring. Tragically so.

But how much is enough? That is the question that is torturing me now. I am determined to maintain my composure, to not let myself get as livid as I was on Tuesday night after too many hours of accumulating news stories and social media opinions. But I want to know the truth about the world, too. I want all the facts. I know I will be outraged by some, and I think it is probably time that more of us were outraged and moved to action by events in our world. But under control! I am not going to lose my temper. I am going to channel it the right way. But not in denial!

ARGH!!! This is hard! What is the right balance of intake versus processing, of reality versus sanity? That was my question to my wife.

Her suggestion: “Just pick one time per day—I think morning is best—to do a quick look at social media. Then, if you still want a regular news show, listen to something neutral, like NPR. But nothing more. Quick and done! Otherwise, you are sucked in!” That seems wise.

I have been attempting to follow her advice the last few days, mostly successfully. I sometimes, out of sheer habit, unconsciously turn on my phone, open Facebook, and start thumbing through. But then I catch myself and turn it off. I am just trying to be more conscious about it, to give myself permission to look only at a certain time of day for only a certain number of minutes. It is hard to resist, but I can tell my spirit is getting stronger for it. Not in denial, either. Facing reality, but not swimming in the rot. It is a delicate balance that I will no doubt be wrestling with for all of my days to come.

How about you? How do you balance denial with peace and sanity in these tumultuous times? Open up your journal and examine your level of engagement. This goes for everyone on every side of the political spectrum, and even those completely off the political spectrum who are simply trying to decide how much news of any sort they want to take in. Let’s start with your current habits. What are your news sources? Do you watch your local news? Cable news? Do you use news apps or subscribe to news pages on social media? If so, do you tend to choose more neutral sources or ones that skew toward your particular side of the spectrum? Do you read a lot of the “news” things that your friends on social media share? How about the radio, like NPR? How much time do you spend with each on a daily basis? How much time do you spend on social media in general? For both news and social media stuff, do you try to regulate the amount of time you spend per day? Are you addicted? How healthy is your relationship with all of this stuff? Does it ever feel like it is going to drive you crazy? Do you get angry? Is your anger and frustration more from the news in general, like the political strife or violence that always seem to lead the headlines, or from particular things that your friends share, like memes or rants? Do you comment and engage people you disagree with, even if you know it won’t change their mind? Does that make you feel better or worse? Have you found the right balance for yourself with the amount of time and energy you can devote to this stuff and still feel authentic and at peace? Are you more on the “Burying My Head & Smiling” side or the “I’m So Engaged I’m Going Crazy” side? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the right balance of news and sanity for you?

May Peace be always with you,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you take a fresh look at this and find some clarity, please share. Perhaps together we can find a way to be both sane and engaged. Cheers!

Troll Power!!! When Did It Become So Normal To Be Negative?

DSC_0784“Bad stuff happens, people are mean, there are no steps you can take to ensure the world leaves you alone. All you can do is try not to be one of those people who contributes to the bad.” –Holly Bourne, Am I Normal Yet? 

Hello friend,

Amidst what we would expect to be a shower of glory and accolades from winning an Olympic gold medal last week, American gymnast Gabby Douglas instead found herself in a hurricane of negativity. The trolls of social media came out in full force to disparage everything from her appearance to her love of the country she has spent the last several years proudly representing. They told her she had bad hair. They told her she wasn’t cheering hard enough for her teammates. They absolutely ripped her patriotism when, during the playing of our national anthem after she and her teammates won the gold medal, she elected to stand at attention with her hand at her side rather than over her heart. She actually felt compelled between events to apologize if she offended anyone by standing that way (never mind that if you look around before a game at a big stadium, hands to the sides during the anthem is completely common). By the time she got to her final press conference of The Games, the vilified Douglas could barely get through it without tears. Apart from not performing as well as she had hoped, she talked of all of the social media haters and how “hurtful” it all was. She walked down the hallway alone and broke down.

That is a two-time Olympian and multiple gold medal winner. And that is what passes for normal on social media these days.

Last weekend, my wife was explaining a project she was working on at her job, creating a public service video designed to bring awareness to sexual violence prevention and how we should all empower ourselves to stop it. She pulled up a YouTube video for me as an example of what they wanted to do, this one done by celebrities. It was well done and well-intentioned, and of course, its message is extremely important. Just as the video was ending, though, she quickly warned me to NOT look at the comments below the video. “All it is down there is nastiness. Just mean-spirited stuff.” So, I didn’t look. For days, I didn’t look, disciplined in my philosophy that my mind shouldn’t go wandering in the mud unless necessary.

But then, my curiosity got the best of me. I mean, how could you possibly be nasty about a public service announcement against rape? Right? It didn’t make sense to me. So, literally just now, I looked.

Holy Hannah!!!

I don’t think of myself as a prude at all, and I like to think I am aware of what is out there in the world. But, oh my goodness, I am beyond disturbed by what I just read! Beyond!

I guess I am not shocked that some people think these awful, mean-spirited things. But this painful, dark sensation in my heart right now—honestly, I am a bit crushed and totally stunned by this experience—seems to be from the sheer volume of people spewing this hate and negativity. It is endless! I couldn’t believe the first few comments I saw, so, like a fool, I kept looking. It was an endless onslaught of vulgarity that ran the gamut of topics, all equally disturbing. In the end, I guess that is what I feel most right now, in the immediate aftermath: DISTURBED.

The questions come racing to the front of my mind. How could someone have that much hate in them? How could SO MANY people have that much hate in them? How could an innocent public service announcement stir all of that up? If there are this many people commenting with hate on something as innocuous as a PSA for sexual violence prevention, do I dare even imagine how many and how negative the comments are for more normal pop culture things, like celebrities or politics or athletes? Who ARE these hateful people? How did we get to this point where this level of negativity is so common that it feels normal, like just part of the deal? 

As these questions relate to the real purpose of Journal of You, they lead me to wonder not just about our society in general but about my personal inventory. That is where it all starts. The issue that keeps spilling out of my churning mind is, “When did it become so easy and acceptable to be so negative?”

I know that for myself, because of my interest in politics and my natural leanings to one of the far ends of the spectrum, it can be easy to dismiss or rail against people on the other end of that spectrum. I think that is especially true in the company of other people who think like I do. One of the things I have done lately to check that tendency, though, is to institute a personal “No Negatives” policy on social media posts. So, even if I come across a meme about Donald Trump that I find hilarious, I am not going to share it. If I find an article about something that I despise, I am not going to share it with my comments about “I hate it when…..” or “This lady is a piece of….. .” Even in response to other people’s posts, I am not going to go down the road of telling them how awful the idea or person they believe in is. I have watched how those interactions spiral, and it is just not productive.

I will, however, on my own page, post about issues that I believe are important or stances that I support. Basically, I want the pattern of my pages to say, “I feel positively about this, and I support that,” rather than “I feel negatively about this, and it is stupid to support that.” (It reminds me of my years of coaching sports, and the important lesson it took me a long time to learn: Better to show and explain to the student what you DO want them to do, rather than keep saying, “Stop doing this” and “Don’t do that.”) 

It will probably always be a mystery to me why someone would spend their time and energy to go on social media to disparage an Olympian’s hair or rail about her lack of patriotism (as she wins gold medals for my country while I sit here on my sofa eating ice cream). And I will certainly never understand why someone would search YouTube for public service announcements about preventing sexual violence so he can comment about how “rape is natural” and “they deserve it” and all sorts of other bigoted swill.

What I can understand, though, is the power of a voice. (After centuries where so few people had a voice that could reach an audience out of earshot, today anyone with a keyboard might reach millions immediately. Maybe that newfound power is what we are all fumbling with now, trying to figure out how to best harness it.) My promise to myself is to be aware of my voice, to understand that it is my choice which way I go with it, and to use it for good. I am going positive.

How about you? Which way do you go with your voice? Open up your journal and get clear on what your vibe is. How easily do you slip into negativity? How would you categorize your most frequent negativity? Are you inclined to rip on people, such as Gabby Douglas, for their appearance or perceived personality traits? Do you share snarky memes about people (e.g. politicians) that you disagree with? Do you find yourself writing or saying stuff like “I hate….” or “You know what really makes me mad? …..”? Would people who talked to you or followed you on social media tend to think you were more optimistic or pessimistic? Open-minded or narrow-minded? Friendly or mean-spirited? In which forum do you let your negativity out? Do you save it for only someone closest to you (e.g. spouses who rip on everyone else, but only to each other—a partner in mockery)? Do you save your more negative commentary for people in the room with you, i.e. in the form of conversations? How much do you put your feelings out on social media? Are you willing to comment on other people’s posts with negative reaction to what they are in support of? Are the things you post or share on your own Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat page more “This is what I believe in…” or more “This is what I can’t stand…”? Have you ever been the person in the Comments section of an online article, video, or chat room who uses the space to be mean to people (either the creators or the other commenters)? Does the anonymity and invisibility of the Internet allow you let your negativity to flow more freely? On the whole, are we more negative these days, or are there just more ways to spread our negativity than before? What is behind this willingness to go so negative? Is it the impersonal nature of the Internet and social media, where we can hide behind our screens and mine from the very worst of our character traits with impunity? Is it the general decline in respect for authority figures? Is it the increasing distance we keep from other people, which lessens our feelings of empathy? With zero being very negative and ten being very positive, how would you rate yourself in terms of the way you are using your voice? Are you willing to do better? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: How can you speak more from the positive in you? 

It costs nothing,

William

P.S. If this letter made you check yourself a bit and consider a different way, please pass it on. Let’s build this thing together!

Using Facebook As Match.com For Friendships: Searching for Real Human Interaction in the Digital Age

DSC_0518“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.–A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh  

Hello friend,

I have a new fantasy woman in my life. She’s super smart, creative, and funny. The way she strings her words together makes my mind light up and my face smile. She comes from a wonderful family and puts great value there, just like I do. Oh, and did I mention that she is also totally beautiful? I can comfortably say she is out of my league. But what the heck, I am going for it! She has all the makings of a true gem, a diamond in the rough. Women like this don’t come along every day. I must stick my neck out and risk the rejection. I have to take the chance!

Sure, I am happily married. So why is this woman living in my head and making me excited to reach out and talk to her? What do I want from her? The answer is simple: Friendship. I want her to be my friend. Well, more precisely, I want to find out if she could be a true friend. I want to connect with her—actually speak to her, even if on the phone—and see if she is actually as cool and deep and inspiring as she seems to be from our few brief online exchanges and a long history as childhood acquaintances. I feel like I have a good sense of her, but I realize that you never really know from a few emails or Facebook comments. Maybe we take that skeleton and fill in all of the rest of the heart and soul and guts with our own minds, romanticizing (or demonizing) the people we have these familiar-yet-distant online relationships with, making them into whomever we want or need them to be. I am aware of that very real possibility in this case, and that is why I am determined to find out.

It requires a social risk, though. In this digital age, we are all used to having relationships that are very friendly but that are also at arms’ length. Facebook, Instagram, and the like have allowed us to connect with new people and reconnect with our old classmates and co-workers. We like and comment on each other’s posts and, in the process, we build and/or keep good feelings toward one another. It’s a great deal. I love it!

As a relative newbie to social media—I’ve been on Facebook for a year-and-a-half and just opened an Instagram account but have no idea what to do with it—I have been amazed at how much I have enjoyed learning what my old elementary and high school classmates are doing. Because I am a terrible friend and haven’t kept up well with anyone from any phase of my life, I was very skeptical about Facebook going into it. I couldn’t imagine why someone would send me a Friend Request if we aren’t actual, current friends, and entering into these relationships seemed really awkward to me, even phony. I was completely out of my water. Much to my surprise, however, it turns out that I LOVE reading about my old schoolmates and seeing their photos. It has helped me to stay better connected to the few people who I still considered to be my friends—even if we had neglected each other for too long—and it has given me a new window into the lives of people I didn’t know well enough, some of whom I still had very fond impressions of.

That brings me to the people like my new fantasy woman. I wrote to you a while back about “The Facebook ‘Friends’ You Wish Were Your Real Friends,” mentioning a handful of people from my (mostly distant) past—some of whom I did not know very well even when I “knew” them–whose Facebook posts I love and who seem like the kind of people I would love to gather in the same room with to see if we might save the world together. Just like the title of that post says, I wish they were my real friends. Well, at least I wish my ideas of them were my real friends. This is where I think social media can be at its finest. Perhaps this thing called Facebook—or Twitter or Instagram or whatever else I know nothing about—is like a global friendship screening system. We can become “friends” with hundreds of people on there, and hopefully from those hundreds we find a special few who make it onto to our wish list.

The question is: What do you do about these people? Do you keep them at the necessary arms’ length distance of a social media relationship, enjoying their posts and occasionally sharing a good-hearted comment exchange, maybe even a private message? OR, do you take a social risk and ask to meet up with one of them—either in person or on the phone—to just talk. You know, the way humans used to do it.

We are increasingly and rapidly losing our social skills in this digital age, which makes it feel awkward and dangerous to make that step of inviting an actual engagement with another person, a real conversation. But that also makes it so much more important that we make this connection. We need more genuine human interaction. Conversations from the heart. Diving deep into another’s life story. A look at the world through their eyes, walking that proverbial mile in their shoes.

I know I need it. I lack that connection in my life. I am cut off. I usually write it off to my introversion, hiding behind my insecurity and my love of solitude to justify why I don’t open up or reach out. Historically, I have tended to see myself as the oddball, though, the only one who stands alone. Lately, however, I have been seeing it—and feeling it—in others all around me, wherever adults happen to gather. I watch the parents on the soccer sidelines and at the bus stop. I am not the only one who shies away. It feels distant and awkward between almost everyone. It’s like we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. It is a great disconnect.

This great disconnect–whether it is spreading like a virus for the modern age or I am just noticing it more–is precisely why I believe in not just making that “Turning a ‘Friend’ into a FRIEND” list but also in doing something about it. Suggesting a meeting or a phone conversation. Actually finding out if you have a fantasy figure created mostly in your head—as I do—or a potential dear friend for life. That is what I decided to do this week. My fantasy woman and I exchanged a couple of messages on a topic, and I was so enthralled with her ideas that I asked her if we could set up a phone call so I could hear more of her thoughts and her life story. I felt weird asking it. After all, in the arms’ length world, each of us has some romantic image of a soulful, creative genius on the other end of the screen. Maybe finally speaking will burst both of our bubbles. Maybe it will just be great catching up but left as a one-shot deal.

But maybe not. Maybe we are destined to teach each other great lessons or collaborate on a world-changing project. Maybe we will be the best of friends. Whatever it is, the social risk seems worth it. A true human connection is something you can’t put a price on. If it happens, I just won the jackpot. If it doesn’t, well, it’s just another day without it. We haven’t had the call yet, but I assure you that the excitement I feel in anticipation is well worth any letdown I will feel if it doesn’t work out. I am that hungry for a connection of my soul.

How about you? How hungry are you for a deep friendship? Open up your journal and think about your online relationships. Which ‘friends’ would you like to make your true friends? What is it about them that resonates with you? What draws you in? Do you have a little dialogue going with them already, whether through comments on each other’s posts or private messages? How much of a social risk would it be for you to propose a meeting or phone conversation to get to know each other better? What do you think they would say? What do you have to gain from reaching out? I understand the other side is the pain of rejection, but answer me this: what do you have to gain from doing nothing? Which gain is more valuable to you: a true, deep friendship or a more superficial but always positive online relationship? How authentic do you think most people’s social media personas are? Do you think you have an accurate read on your friend list from their posts and comments? Is it possible to have a deep relationship with someone online only? Have you ever pursued a relationship because of social media content? Do you have that one fantasy friend who you are just sure that you are meant to be besties with? What keeps you from making that connection happen? Leave me a reply and let me know: Who is your social media fantasy, and what are you going to do about it? 

Love is worth a risk,

William

P.S. If this speaks to you, please share.  You never know who it might connect you with!