Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

Don’t be a Social Smartass

We’re all tempted from time to time. But why do some people actually cross the line online?

First, a note. I almost didn’t publish this entry. Then I rewrote it six times. Why? Because it almost feels like I’m engaging in the activity I’m discouraging. Almost. But then I decided it was just happening too many times, and just a little too over the top, not to call attention to it. So here’s my attempt to learn from it, to ask the question:

Why do some people act like complete jerks online?

Yes, I edited that line too, about thirty times. You know what I wanted to say; What you’ve wanted to say since social media made it possible for people to have their say about your social existence. Now that we’re sharing everything we do, feel, think online, we’ve come to accept that others will comment on it. Our fans, friends and followers. Even strangers.

Oh my.

Most of the time the comments are wonderful. There’s a reason why there’s a “like” button. Thank goodness Facebook resists making a “dislike” one. What a terrible place social media will be if we make it easier to be negative with each other. But that doesn’t stop rudeness from rearing its ugly head. Nor is online rudeness new. It certainly predates social media, back to the era of discussion groups and listservs. What is new is the ability for so many people to add two-cents to your every update. We’re told that’s the point, the fun, the goal of social media: To share and hear feedback.

And I’d agree; up to a point.

Social media is equally personal and impersonal. Yet it’s not the same kind of personal as being in person. That’s due to a most unfortunate invention: the alias. Social pseudonyms allow people to wear a ring of invisibility. Acting in ways they’d never do in daylight. It’s why only the foolhardy and blowhardy are left in discussion groups these days. Why we skip the comments section on news stories. We already know what will be said. It’s all very Nancy Grace. No, worse, but who remembers Morton Downey Jr.?

Note to self: Social media is not a license to be an smartass.

Saying that makes me feel better. No, not really. I feel sad, confused, from a sociological standpoint. It’s not simply that we can say impolite, uncareful and mean-spirited things when we’re anonymous. It’s because so many people now do it visibly. With their name, photo and profile attached.

How did we get here?

Oh, I know. Web 2.0 is all about you. Your voice. Your blog. Your bubble. Mine, too. We can all have our say. No more editors. Not even our inner ones. By all means, write anything you like on your own page. But when you join the conversation of others, on their pages, shouldn’t your “social editor” be at work before you press enter?

It ought to be. No, I’m not a curmudgeon.

Less and less, we remember to edit ourselves these days. That leaves more and more opportunity to appear mean-spirited online. Maybe you’ve recently found yourself “hiding” posts from certain friends, so they won’t see them, won’t comment on them. They’ve turned too many walls into battle zones, not sharing zones. They have become our social media stalkers. Maybe you have one?

If the online public square becomes a big shoot-out, that would be bad.

Please: nobody loves a good argument more than I. A degree in philosophy, another in political science. Five years of talk radio. On the speaking circuit for two decades. If I don’t get audiences who say, “yeah, but….” then I’m having an off-day. Plenty of friends have mopped the floor with my arguments: Steve, Robert, William, others. And rightfully so, in a healthy discussion. With plenty of passion, but also with plenty of care. It’s an honor when they take time to respond. They can disagree, and be generous. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m just old enough to remember my grandmother reminding me to behave in public. To hold my tongue. Not to say everything that comes to mind. To think before I speak. Because people have feelings. Even online.

It’s an important lesson, for me, at least. I’ve fallen into the smartass trap myself in the past. It’s tempting, with so much social material. But it’s bad. For your reputation. And for your soul. Your public persona is more than your profile. It’s the sum of your interactions: How you treat others in social media matters. It’s why it’s hard to be sarcastic and kind at the same time. Even puns can push the limits. That’s why we sometimes hesitate. We add emoticons, to soften, to indicate fellowship and good will, even in disgreement. And why we know when it’s time to stop. Or skip it altogether.

We should strive to maintain “society” in social media. Not let it become a place where to tie others to their posts, then burn them at the stake.

I wish someone would create a grandmother app. The kind that popped up as you are writing on Facebook or Twitter and said, Hey, this time, just shut up. Keep it to yourself. Know when to say when. The grandmother filter could keep us from harming others, and ourselves. To start, let’s at least notice what’s happening. If for no other reason than to keep our grandmother in mind the next time we’re tempted to act like a social smartass.

  • Well said Matthew. As the old saying goes, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

  • Perfect quote! I think it’s something we often forget…. thanks for stopping by!

  • How you treat people matters, is sharpest of truths. Thanks for the reminder.  Oh.  Blowhardy is an awesome word.  Cheers.

  • Mathew, I will admit it; I am a smart-ass, but I try hard not to be a dumb-ass.
    One thing I have learned is that it is much harder to finesse a turned phrase in type.
    It is very easy to hurt someones feelings if they can not see your face or hear the inflection in your voice..  

  • Thanks, Ken. Glad you liked my new word… Sometimes the Muse is at the
    keyboard. :>

  • Herbert:
    Definitely true! Not only is it hard to be funny, but it’s hard to be
    simply “clear” in a few dozen words that make up the usual social
    interactions. Now imagine people who purposefully try to cause trouble….
    Thanks for stopping by!

  • The age old saying needs to be revised:  Lord fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff and nudge me when I’ve said enough…or kindly guide my finger to the backspace button. Great work as always. I think the grandmother app would be awesome on so many levels.

  • Nice revision to the old saying – Backspace might be the “stealth” version of the grandmother app these days. I think it would be lots of fun – and good sense – if there was a fully configurable pop-up that featured her wagging finger at us, though! Wish I were a programmer… :>

  • love the idea of the grandmother app…  Reminds me of the “drunk dial” app, that makes you complete a math problem before you text that ex-girlfriend!
    I am most surprised by folks who spit their venom in a small town…  about THEIR customers!  🙂 yes, it is happening almost weekly.  
    Always enjoy your insights and articles Matthew!  Keep up the good work.

  • Rod Vedder

    I find that sometimes if I just type what I want to say and then don’t actually post it, I feel better.  Sometimes you just want to say/type it, and then get rid of it.  The grandmother app is brilliant.  Good stuff!

  • My grandmother used to say “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.” I did not speak for several years after I heard her say this the first time……

  • It reminds me of what I tried to teach my kids and what my dad taught me, “You have two ears and only one mouth, use them accordingly.” Unfortunately in today’s world too many people have changed the phrase to “You have two eyes and ten fingers…”

  • well said. in the interest of full disclosure, i am a snarky, smart ass “jerk”. but i have one rule when commenting on the tweets and posts of others: would i say it to their face? if the answer is “no”, i don’t say it. if the answer is “yes…if the humor is obvious”. that’s what emoticons and “LOL” is for. all things being equal, i would never use a “winking face” or “LOL” at my own comment. however, as Herbert said, the tone of one’s comments is near impossible to discern. people just need to remember that even though Social Media is supposedly “new”, the same old rules of human communication still apply. great discussion here Matthew

  • Michelle Spalding

    Great reminder, I’m glad you decided to published this.  Sadly I see many people post photos or comments that would scare me away from using their services.. 

    I live by the wisdom of my mother gave me “never say anything, write anything or take photos that you wouldn’t want me to see”.    The grandmother app, now that’s a good one……….I think you’re onto something.  I may have to get some of my geeky friends on that.

  • Elaine

    Grandmother app!!!  I love it!

  • Thanks Michelle! Appreciate your support!

  • That’s a great rule, Jason! Very similar to my grandmother-rule example. Appreciate your comments!

  • “Wise words bring approval, but fools are destroyed by their own words. “Ecc. 10:12

  • I like “curmudgeon.”

  • Michael Gonzalez

    Good article Matt. Luckily most of my online friends seem to be pretty polite and understand that they are speaking to a large audience when they post. When someone does cross the line too many times, I just do what I do in real life – see less of this person!

  • Rose Robinson

    I totally agree with you more, Matthew!  There is such a fine line between being “honest” and being “mean” or worse “inappropriate”.  I was not happy recently when one of my FB friends used the f-bomb while describing someone; I personally think in a public forum like FB that is inappropriate, as there are so many other descriptors that work just as well. 
    And then those that go beyond the line (lewd photos, etc.) well they should be banned or maybe voted out of office!  Thanks for the great post.

  • With such a high degree of human social triggers missing in social media (text only), there should really be an “understood” button… Would be interesting to measure the “ROI of SM” taking the negative into account, as well!
    Then again, if everything were vanilla…..

  • Interesting concept: What you’re saying is that social media may not be up
    to the task of HUMAN communication….. Very likely!

  • Heather Ostrom

    Such a fantastic post and I love your “edit again” comments. SO TRUE. I over-analyze everything to make sure I’m not offending, but still try to make sure my true voice and opinion are maintained and it’s so darn difficult. I’m a natural “smart-A” … and so weave that in and I have to be really careful how I conduct myself online (even in a blog post comment, DOH!). ~ Thank you for sharing this post with me – and is there emoticon “soften-the-blow” therapy I can take part in? … trying … so … hard … not to … do emoticon … here.

  • Thanks for your comment, Heather!
    Like you, I’m a bit naturally snarky, so it’s often a struggle not to “one-line” zap people’s posts. Still, it often happens, but thank goodness I can now go back and delete…
    Over the summer I went back over my entire blog – since 2008! – and actually deactivated some posts that I felt I was overly sarcastic in. It was an important lesson to review my previous posts and to ask: Do I want to be known as that guy? Now, I try to build sentiment that into my posts BEFORE I click “publish”!
    Chat soon,
    — Matthew