As a technology professional, I should probably be a little ashamed to say that I am not a big user of social media. I have used Facebook and LinkedIn to reconnect with old friends and coworkers that I have lost touch with, and I recognize the great value in that. But I really only log in to these sites when I get rare email notifications or reminders, and occasionally when I am thinking of an old friend and want to leave a message for them.
I am actually mostly aware of these tools when people around me are having negative experiences because of them, which seems to be quite often. Usually it is some kind of conflict between "friends" carried out via wall posts and/or instant messages. People want to share their ideas, likes, complaints, and so on - which is great. And having other people post responses to them is what the social media experience is all about.
But all too often something rubs someone the wrong way. People even post things intended to irritate others. And it can set off a vicious free-for-all of biting, insulting, hurtful and downright destructive posts, which can quickly escalate to even criminal levels. I have seen bullying and hurtful posts severely affect the emotional state of loved ones for weeks at a time. I have seen people posting links to other people's public criminal records. I have seen people ostracized within real-life social groups based on expressing their beliefs and being bashed in the virtual world. We have all heard the reports of cyber-bullying, and most have probably seen many examples of it first-hand. It seems like every week I see a friend or family member upset to the point of tears or angered to the point of throwing things because of escalating social media conflicts.
In a very short span of time we have created all kinds of new ways to communicate - email, text messaging, wall posts, news commenting. Unfortunately they are popping up faster than we can adopt etiquettes for handling them respectfully and constructively.
For quite some time people have been able to write things in letters they would never say to someone's face. But at least with a letter you generally have time to think things through before it is sealed in an envelope, stamped, and picked up by the mailman. Email has shortened this process to the point that we zip off a nasty-gram in no time flat, and we can respond to one just as fast. Text messages have cut the response time even further. We can now misconstrue each other's intent and overreact in record time. Add to that the public humiliation factor of the message board or wall and you have a truly dangerous tool.
I have read concerned opinions that the explosive growth of social media is one of the reasons for the highly divided political environment. Sadly, I believe this. Social media has given us all kinds of new opportunities to divide ourselves into discordant groups. I have seen deep rifts develop among even members of the same family over social media. But social media was intended to enhance our lives, not ruin them.
When someone I know is upset by a posted conversation, I always tell them, "Walk away now!" When someone is angered by these exchanges, there seems to be an overwhelming desire to respond - to "put them in their place" or "make them see that they are wrong". But I have never seen a social media post anything like, "Oh, I see your point now. I was wrong. I apologize." No matter what you write, you are not going to put someone in his or her place, and you are not going to change his or her mind. The only path seems to be greater escalation - with more quoted facts, links to articles and videos and eventual name-calling or worse. An exchange of differing ideas may be healthy, but if you are already upset, then it has gone far enough.
Maybe in time we will all come to a mutual understanding about how to communicate through all these new channels without driving each other mad. Until then, sometimes the only correct response is no response. Don't write that hateful message. Or even the defensive one. Don't dwell on what has been said. Don't read the continued posts trying to goad you to a response. Don't worry that others of your "friends" will form a lower opinion of you if you don't impress them with a brilliant comeback. If necessary, walk away from your social media account for a week or a month. Or cancel it and start over. But definitely don't let it make you cry, give you anxiety, or prompt you to end relationships. If one of your "friends" wants to say something to you that will end your friendship, make them do it in person or at least on the phone. In short, make sure the virtual world remains a small, contained part of your real world.
Just remember that the engaging in social media is supposed to make your life more enjoyable. Avoid those parts of it that are not achieving that result and you can gain something positive from it.