This week, in a small Facebook group that I manage, I asked a straightforward question. The first person to respond misread my post and answered the question she thought I was asking rather than the one I had actually asked. Another commenter followed suit, so I edited the question, changing the wording, and even adding caps and asterisks for emphasis. Fifteen comments later, all but one participant in the conversation followed the lead of the first or subsequent misreaders. I was amused, but my question remained mostly unaddressed, and the comment thread cemented my view that, even when used for very basic communication, online interaction can be eminently unreliable.
Social networking services allow us to communicate instantly, widely, and powerfully. With so many different abolitionist vegan voices to inspire us or support us, with the potential to reach a wide audience, and with the backing of a community of like-minded people who are constantly connected it can facilitate particularly effective advocacy (I’ll discuss this in further detail in the next post).
But where much of our communication in face-to-face encounters is aided by nonverbal communication (tone, pitch, intonation, volume and speed of voice, gestures, proximity, facial expressions and even touch) all of this is lost from online interactions and this makes the transmission and reception of a message unreliable and potentially problematic. Messages spread rapidly, words stay around longer to be analysed, re-analysed, overanalysed. Our interactions lack the complexity and forgiveness of face-to-face encounters. We construct personae: versions of ourselves that can’t be probed by those without access to our nonverbal idiom, and we form images of our interlocutors based solely upon their words. Social networking services also create intensely competitive environments, with likes, comments and re-shares often connected to our sense of self-worth. We scan and glance rather than considering and engaging, participating in several conversations at once and not giving any the kind of attention that we would invest in an offline interaction.
Sometimes it feels like we’re shouting over walls at each other, our ideas being carried away on the wind and resulting in misunderstandings, impatience, hostility, disillusionment. We write an advocacy post and it gets no response, so it seems as though our efforts have been in vain (although we can never account for the impact of a post that seems to us as though it is invisible to others). Misreadings are interpreted as a wilful failure to engage. Assumptions are made about our interlocutor’s knowledge and experience, and frustration often results on both sides. Utterances become our primary focus, and we lose sight of the person who articulated them.
At other times we become attuned to the negativity of these kinds of interactions and become less conscious of the progress that we’re making and the community that we’re fostering: the moments of kindness and generosity, the teamwork, the expansion of our networks, the possibility of engaging in transformational pedagogic experiences–learning from others and teaching them in return. Online social networking is one of the greatest tools at our disposal in its ability to amplify our message, yet it is this amplification that can make it seem so diffused, illimitable, impersonal. To counter these problems, I offer the following suggestions:
- Stay away from those areas of online social networks that you find toxic or unproductive, and focus your energy on places where you can make a difference.
- Remember that the people with whom you will be holding discussions are probably as passionate about the issues as you. Respect them and their views, and engage with these views, where appropriate, rather than dismissing out of hand.
- Take time to pause before responding to anything contentious: walk away from the computer, engage with the ‘real world’ for a while, evaluate whether a response would be useful, and, if so, construct one that is as clear as possible.
- Ensure that you understand the meaning of that to which you’re responding. Ask questions, summarise, and, before responding to the point being made, attempt to elicit the kind of clarity that would otherwise be aided by nonverbal communication in a face-to-face encounter.
- Don’t interpret lack of knowledge as wilful ignorance. Err on the side of generosity with your interlocutor, and always be prepared to educate and be educated.
- Interrogate attitudes rather than making assumptions about the person uttering them. If your initial feeling is right, then at least you have a more solid foundation on which to progress with the discussion.
- Recognise the educational value of dialogue, but know when to step away.
- Remember that abolitionist vegans aren’t homogenous: we all have different life experiences, attitudes, expectations, skills, abilities to process new information. If we see our interlocutors as projections of ourselves (with similar backgrounds, abilities, preconceptions, beliefs, understanding), we will never progress with any discussion.
- Treat all online discourse as though it’s public and permanently visible, but be cognisant that others may not have the same realisation when posting, so respect the assumptions they may have about the visibility of their posts.
- Be aware that because our sense of self-worth is often tied to metrics in social networking, it can be useful to take important conversations to private message rather than continuing them in a public forum where people (including you) might be less inclined to concede. Before doing so, make sure that you have the express approval, on the thread, of your interlocutor, to avoid this technique being misconstrued as a personal attack.
- Most importantly, try to connect with abolitionist vegans offline to create a more personalised network of support. If this is not possible, use face-to-face social networking tools, or at least a telephone, to create more reliable bonds with those to whom you feel a particular connection.
Communicating by online social media will inevitably present us with challenges, but it will also help to foster friendships and a sense of belonging. Manage all interactions as you would offline, but be cognisant of the differences between the two forms. To prevent frustration and disillusionment, build several independent networks of support and try to meet fellow abolitionist vegans offline too.