I’ve been thinking about social media a lot this week.
(Oh no, here she goes again…)
It has been an important week in history. As a social historian, I’m always curious about how “people at the time” reacted to events as they happened. It’s why I love reading letters and diaries, and why our entire discipline is built on primary documents. Secondary sources (such as a book about an event, analyzing it years after it happened) are very important, but primary sources, which were generated while things were happening, are the basis of everything we do as historians. Dispatches from the battlefield, telegrams, newspaper accounts, ledgers, ship manifests, and many, many other documents are offerings at the feet of Clio, the muse of history.
And now we have another form of primary documentation called social media. There’s a very good chance that what we post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sources will be around for an exceedingly long time. These posts will outlive us. They will be part of the testimony of our lives.
While I may not be the most tech-savvy person in America, I like to think I’m not a Luddite either. And I have, over the years, come to appreciate social media for the good things it can do. I’m much more connected with high school and college chums than I would have been if we were still relying on the post office. I can see whose children have graduated and whose grandchildren have been born. I’m delighted to absorb all the good news that comes across the news feed, the accomplishments and mileposts and just plain happiness that something like a shared picture of a vacation sunset or a playful kitten can bring.
But social media can be a hurtful thing as well. The stories of bullying and shaming have literally gone viral. This morning, as I was coming in to work, I recalled some dark moments in my life. I remembered being humiliated and bullied at places I thought were supposed to be safe—the classroom, the band room, the church youth group. These painful instances are seared into my memory. They never leave me, and while they don’t rule me I know they helped shape me. And I have not forgotten who did these things or how they were done.
But there is no evidence that they happened. It wasn’t written down, it doesn’t exist as a primary document in any library or archives. We didn’t have cell phone cameras or recorders, so I can’t show you how and when it occurred. And, as a historian, I know that memory is malleable, that the history in our heads is a collection of things that may or may not have happened as we think they did. I know how I felt but I will concede that my memories, as clear as they are to me, would not be valid in Clio’s court without some supporting evidence. I also know that I am not an angel, that I am imperfect, and that I may have been cruel to someone and have forgotten my actions. If I have ever wronged anyone who is reading this, then please know that I am sorry and that I try very hard not to be “that person” these days. If the last week in history has made me more aware of anything, it is the commandment to “love one another.”
Which brings me back to social media. I am grateful that we did not have it when I was in high school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we wrote our term papers out of the World Book Encyclopedia). I can only imagine how much worse it would have been to have the awkward moments of my young life captured and put on display. I’m sure there would have been a ‘mock’ Facebook account for my pimples, my ugly glasses, my extra pounds, and my general unpopularity.
I hope parents today are becoming aware of how important it is to provide guidance to their children on the use of social media. Most of the folks that I know who have kids are awesome parents and are sensitive to how a very old problem (bullying) can take on a technological twist.
But I also think those of us who are adults need to lead by example. We need to think that the things we post on social media could well be read when we are long in our graves. We are creating primary documents that someone might, in the future, use to judge us, to make assessments about the kind of persons we were and the lives we lived. Be assured, I am not saying that we shouldn’t write in response to events. Nor am I suggesting that outsiders censor any variety of opinion. After all, one of the greatest things about freedom of speech is that it also gives us the freedom to make ourselves ridiculous! But what I am suggesting is that we all take a moment to think before hitting that post button. Perhaps we should stop and ask some questions before we leave behind words and images for eternity: “Is this going to be helpful?” “Is this thoughtful?” “Am I backing up my point with valid evidence?” “Am I using rhetoric or am I just bloviating?”
And how about this—“Is what I am posting designed to hurt someone?” “Am I doing this to be provocative, to be witty, or to be hateful?” “Am I expressing myself gracefully or am I spreading fear?” “Am I being an internet bully?” “Is my lack of empathy showing?”
And perhaps most importantly, “Is this how I want people to remember me?”
Justice may be blind, but Clio never blinks. In her hand is a tablet, and beside her is a horn. How do you want to be written up and what tune would you like her to play to your descendants?