A New Plan for Social Media

Found an important TED talk today about reframing what we say, and how we say it on social media by Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian internet activist and computer engineer who has observed his fair share of divisive social media exchanges. Ghonim is optimistic that the Internet can be the most powerful platform to connect humanity, if we can learn to bring civility and (added by me) vulnerability to this communication forum.  

Ghonim's major tenet is that the tiny box and brevity of social media have trained us to put out sensational, short blasts of opinion in order to get noticed.  Likes, comments, shares - whether positive or negative - are the goal, instead of a true exchange of ideas and parlance.  When the issues are culturally-sensitive (i.e., war, politics, human rights), brevity to this extreme can cause a lot of trouble.  These posts will surely get attention, but to what end?  Having the last, caustic word versus inviting a protected exchange of opinion - that is what he's calling out. I won't drop a spoiler alert because if this rings true, listen to his talk (link below).  Suffice it to say that a Facebook page he set up quickly escalated from an empathic outreach/ask for discussion to disastrous high-scale rioting.  

The dilemma he highlights got me thinking about why we become so quickly incited and rigid in our opinions (pithy as they may be), once we make them.  A great scholar on this subject, Robert Cialdini, taught me the principles of persuasion as a grad student.  Consistency and commitment are two powerful maxims that help explain persuasive speech (and resulting behavior). Once we commit, especially in public and in writing, to a certain opinion, we strive to stay consistent with it.  It's 'our word,' after all. We said it, now we will go to great lengths to protect it.  We want to save face, not look uncertain by changing our minds.  Ghonim sees how this leads to division and polarity, when it could be leading to discussion, engagement and understanding.  

What Ghonim asks for is a "liberating of the Internet."  He asks us to think about how to design social media experiences that promote civility and reward thoughtfulness. Normalize simple, yet new, conventions like making it acceptable or positively reinforced to change your mind in a public way, after listening to thoughtful debate.  If the Internet could be understood more as a global think tank than an individual's rise to prophetic fame, think how differently Ghonim's FB effort could have gone.  Instead of the police massacre that he endured, imagine fervent discussion using all of the tools social media offers - words, photos, music, even VR experiences.  

I hope you hear Ghonim's full story.  It certainly feeds my love/hate relationship with social media and what it does (and doesn't) do for global society.  I second his call to action:  

Reframe our ideas about social media to make the end goal broad-based cultural learning, rather than the fantastic thirst for individual fame, dogma or doctrine.