Communication is hard

I am reminded of how hard communication is on a daily basis, both in professional terms (How do we produce content people want … and how do we make sure they see it?), and in my own home life (How do I tell my wife something that accurately conveys how I feel?).

That second one is sometimes harder than it sounds, because well, our feelings don’t always make a whole lot of sense.  And if they do, they’re complicated.  It’s not as simple as, “Me angry. You do better.”  Usually (always?) it’s more convoluted than that.

Which is why I am sympathetic — to some degree or another — to any goober who makes an ass of themselves on social media.

A former Kansas State student did just that yesterday, and she did it in an entirely upsetting way.  Racism is not a good look, nor does it reflect particularly well on my alma mater.  This is frustrating to me, as an alum, but also as a human being who wants to see the best in other people.

Positively, the K-State infrastructure — and by that I mean collectively the administration, the student newspaper, and the Black Student Union – all came together to admonish the act but also proactively suggest in sensible terms the improvements that can still be made on campus.  I am proud of the reaction, honestly.

But I’m not writing today so much about racism or my alma mater so much as I am the action of a young kid, doing a stupid thing from a position of white privilege, and what a shame this self-destructive act is.

To be clear, what she and her friend did is not okay.  Doing and saying what she did is not okay in any context or situation, and thusly I don’t defend it.  But what I do also observe in this case is how highly destructive social media is going to be for this person.

She may recover, and she may lead a fairly normal life in the final analysis, but it’s probably also safe to say that some doors have no doubt been closed for her now.  Add in the large amount of scrutiny and criticism, and that’s a high price to have to pay for a youthful error in judgement.  I say this not to diminish her act, but rather to illustrate the power and danger in social media.

If she had done this in the company of decent people and NOT posted it to social media, I have high hopes that they might have said something to her along the lines of it not being okay, and then explaining to her why.  Her behavior would have been visible to a few, not many, and would her ears (and mind) perhaps have been more open to helpful instruction?  Instead she receives a torrent of boos (and even some support, sadly), and the chorus can more easily be tuned out.  I think it far likelier she would dig in and firm up her (incorrect) position given the current circumstances than if she had instead been confronted only by a trusted friend or family member.  You may have seen a higher chance of growth and learning, rather than resentment or frustration.

But this is the world we live in.  There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, so we must deal with what we have.  I tend to go back to my professional life context when confronted with these new realties in modern communication, and I am relieved I have a background in this stuff to lean on.  And yes, I still don’t get it right all the time (as I led this article with), but I go back to my training and my education, and my experience in the field of mass communications as guideposts, and it’s highly comforting.

Whenever I’ve been confronted by know-it-all types in the past who question my credentials or loudly proclaim that my job is one they could rock given the opportunity, my response has often been to cede that point but to ask in response if they were willing to work for peanuts for years/decades to finally catch a big break?  Most would quiet down real quick.  Because that was my path, and I feel I paid my dues, I am generally insulted when others imply that working in media is somehow easy.

But those years and decades, not to mention the educational background (four-plus years worth), are in and of themselves a qualification, and for that I am grateful.  I have to remind myself on occasion, “I DO know what I am doing and others may not,” and it’s moments like these that help me understand that.

As a dumb kid in newspaper class in high school, I wrote an opinion piece that was both highly dumb AND highly privileged.  It was something along the lines of “people acting in this way are followers and trying too hard to be cool” and because at the time I was more inept as a writer than I am now, it probably came off more like “Black people, assimilate yourselves better into white people society.”  I have not gone back to look for the offending article, because frankly it’s too embarrassing to do so.  Suffice it to say, I am almost 100 percent sure I owe everyone who ever read it an apology.  Let me get that on the record now, over 20 years later:  I apologize for my stupid, narrow-minded article.

At the time I got blow back.  People were angry.  But I felt unfairly maligned. Couldn’t anyone understand?  What had I done to them?  I just wanted people to be themselves.  Wasn’t that a GOOD thing?

Time and perspective have helped me to understand, yeah, everything you got as a result of that article was pretty well deserved.  I put a BAD viewpoint out into the public eye, and I was lucky to avoid getting my ass kicked by about 20 other kids (seriously, there was a line of kids waiting to kick my ass).

For a looooooong time I let that color my thinking.  I didn’t trust people of color, because of one angry mob that I had created.  I didn’t get that I was responsible. The only thing I held onto was that angry mob, not my own culpability.

Social media works the same way.  If you put something out for consumption by a mass audience, they will have every right to react to it.

I learned THAT lesson quickly.  It took me a lot longer to understand what exactly I had done re: racism and grow from THAT.  Thankfully, I’m much better today about not seeing skin color or using it to make predetermined judgments of people (if only certain members of our police force felt the same!).

So, I can relate to being dumb.  And I can particularly relate to being dumb in a public setting.  Now, I don’t necessarily believe that people need formal training for social media, or that it is a giant evil thing, but I do know that it not a form of communication that is inherently “natural.”  It used to require a platform, and that platform used to require training, for people to communicate in a mass way like this.

Most of us jump on social media today eager to share our voices, but how many of us consider the consequences?  Shouldn’t all of us be thinking about what we post before we post it?  Would so many of us be so quick to post awful, unattractive things if it’s not relatively (or completely) anonymous?  Would so many of us be so quick to say something unbelievably antagonistic or dumb if handed a microphone and loudspeaker?

The gun lobby would make the same argument, to be frank. “Guns aren’t dangerous in the hands of someone who is trained properly.”  And to a degree, I agree.  Training and proper care curb incidents.  And that’s kind of where we’re at with social media.

As a parent, it falls to me.  I don’t want my kids on there at all, because honestly even as an adult who works in the field, I still get it wrong tons (or at least it feels like I do).  But invariably they’ll want to do it.  And when that day comes, I aim to be prepared with example(s) of how it can ruin lives (there are so many, this won’t be hard), and probably more importantly, guidelines on how to handle these modern “guns” properly.

And they’ll still get it wrong.  I’m going to do my best to make sure they won’t do anything that’s flamingly racist (we’ll be talking about THAT as well), but mistakes will be made.  I just hope they aren’t galactically consequential in nature.

As I said, communication is hard.


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