Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from an essay, Five Ways to Build Caring Community on Social Media, post on the Greater Good, Science of a Meaningful Life website.
Here are five suggestions, by no means comprehensive, for fostering the well-being of others online, based on a combination of my reading of the research and my experience.
Because the research is so shallow—and my experience so narrow—I invite readers to discuss these recommendations, and to please make their own in the comments.
1. Bring your best self to social media
There is a research-tested exercise we promote on Greater Good in Action called “Best Possible Self for Relationships.” I’ve found that applying this exercise to social media can be quite thought-provoking. It asks you to imagine your relationships going as well as they possibly could, and then writing that vision down. It’s really about self-discovery: Who do I want to be and what do I want out of life?
Here are the steps, which I’ve adapted for thinking about your social media persona:
Take a moment to imagine your life in the future, and focus specifically on your social media relationships. What is the best possible online life you can imagine? This could involve, for example, feeling supported when you face challenges in life, staying in touch with high-school friends, having a place to come together in the face of a natural disaster, or keeping your inner life alive by discovering new music or books. Think about what your best possible relationships would look like for you.
For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagined about these best possible future relationships. It may be easy for this exercise to lead you to focus on how things fall short in the present. For the purpose of this exercise, however, focus on the future—imagine a brighter future in which you are your best self and your circumstances change just enough to make these desired social connections happen.
This exercise is most useful when it is very specific—if you think about having a better online relationship with your family, for instance, describe exactly what would be different in the ways you relate to each other; if you’d like a better relationship with people whose politics are very different from yours, describe how they interact with you, what values you might share, and so on. The more specific you are, the more engaged you will be in the exercise and the more you’ll get out of it.
You might even consider posting your vision to social media. Don’t be afraid: See what people have to say about your ideal social media space.
2. Cultivate a diverse social network
This to me is the foundation of a healthy life on social media.
Racial, cultural, and economic biases exist — within me, you, institutions, across nations, and within nations around the globe. And so, so, so often I see good people generalize from data they see in their incredibly biased Facebook or Twitter feeds. I learned about the shootings in Kenya, the earthquake in Nepal, the Syrian refugee crisis, and more, from Facebook. In the same feed, I also saw people write, “Why is no one paying attention to the shootings in Kenya/earthquake in Nepal/the Syrian refugee crisis?!” Seemingly unaware that this isn’t true of everyone or of everyone’s social network.
It’s a hard truth: Imbalance in your social media feeds doesn’t reflect media bias. It reflects your bias.
To correct for this, I often work to add friends (even ones I don’t know) who I think will add to the depth and richness of how I see the world. I also try to be aware that my efforts will always fall short. You can’t eliminate bias; you can only mitigate and manage it. Over the years, I’ve consciously built an online social network that includes family, friends from every stage of my life, writers of all kinds, journalists, psychologists, and more—plus, people of many different races, cultures, and economic backgrounds. This diversity is one of the gifts that life has given me, though sometimes it can feel like a curse—especially when these different and diverse people start bickering on my Facebook wall.
Yes, diversity can create conflict. It’s tempting to block or unfriend troublesome people, especially when you yourself disagree with them.
Here’s what I think: The difference between a well-rounded human and a one-dimensional fanatic is that the human remembers that he or she can be wrong. Of course, you should be skeptical of everything you read online. But you should also try to be skeptical of yourself. When you feel that dopamine rush of righteousness coming on, STOP. Hit pause. Take a breath. Do your own research, especially when the facts and explanations seem to confirm your pre-existing beliefs. Sometimes you’ll mess up. I do, all the time. Big deal. Admit you’re wrong, forgive yourself, and try to do better next time. When someone else is wrong, try to forgive them.
Diversity doesn’t really work without humility.
3. Highlight what your friends have in common
How do social media turn good people into nasty ones?
Part of the answer lies in the one-dimensionality of the interaction. If someone is not personally known to you, they are just a name on the screen, and all we know about them is one tweet or comment. It seems to me that one of the reasons why Twitter is so vicious is that followers are not bidirectional friends, the way they are on Facebook. This makes it more difficult for you to create and facilitate a community of different people.
I try, as much as possible, to show people I know what disparate friends might have in common, especially at points of conflict. “Peter and Sarah—you disagree about gun control, but did you know you both graduated from the University of Florida?” Or perhaps, “I still love you both!”
Sounds cheesy—let’s face it, most of what I’m saying here sounds cheesy—but it works in defusing tense moments. You’re making them both feel like they’re part of the same in-group, and there are a stack of studies showing that this will increase the pro-social tendencies of all the parties involved.
The important thing to remember is that your social media connections are an in-group that you created. When they comment on something you’ve shared, they are guests in your home. A good host generates a convivial atmosphere by helping everyone to feel included in the conversation.
A word about racism, sexism, and other forms of identity-based discrimination: I don’t tolerate the denigration of entire groups of people in my networks, and I don’t think you should either. Does this contradict what I’m saying about having a diverse network? I agree there’s some ambiguity, but I simply don’t want, for example, women or folks of color to feel uncomfortable inside the community I create with my account. I brought them together; I try to keep them safe from abuse. You may disagree with me, of course. We all have different limits. But this too, in my opinion, is part of cultivating other people’s well-being online.
4. Try some active listening
It’s really hard to listen to people on social media.
In face-to-face conversation, active listening means expressing interest in what a person has to say. This can be as simple as making eye contact or lightly touching their hand as they speak, but it’s really a deeper exercise in trying to truly empathize with another person, especially during a difficult conversation. Here’s what that might look like online, again adapted from Greater Good in Action:
Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you right….”
Ask questions. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means. Instead, ask questions to clarify his or her meaning, such as, “When you say_____, do you mean_____”?
Express empathy. If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position.
Understand now, judge later. Your first goal should be to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it.
Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard. Moving too quickly into advice-giving can be counterproductive.
Of all the steps I’m proposing, this to me feels the most difficult. On social media, we take turns; there’s no opportunity for non-verbal feedback as we speak. For active listening to work online, we need more patience, not less, than we do in real life.
5. Promote positive messages and images
After the Paris attacks, divisive poison and fear-inducing imagery flooded my feeds. Then one of my friends shared this video, of a blindfolded Muslim man hugging strangers on a Paris street:
I felt my heart lift.
This is imagery that induces “moral elevation,” which psychologist Jonathan Haidt defines as “a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.”
In a study published this year, 104 college students watched videos depicting heroic or compassionate acts while researchers measured their heart rates and brain activity. They found that witnessing suffering triggered a stress response, but that then seeing suffering alleviated through a caring, selfless act produced a sense of relief the students felt throughout their bodies. The researchers specifically saw activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with empathy and “theory of mind”—our ability to predict behavior in other people.
In short, witnessing acts of goodness helps us to feel connected to humanity, while witnessing violence cuts us off from others. Elevation helps turn the stress response from fight-or-flight into tend-and-befriend. That’s why when friends share images that elevate me and help me to feel connected, I am grateful—and I share it on.
The bottom line? If we want to transform the culture of social media, we have to set an intention to be supportive of each other online. Kind, compassionate, honest, grateful, and forgiving. There’s a place for anger or snark. But that shouldn’t be our default setting, especially when we communicate with people whom we call friends.