One of the terms I find most problematic when reading online content is the phrase “in real life” as a means to distinguish online activities from face to face “real” experiences. While we can’t substitute our online participation for the ones we engage in as part of the physical world, to suggest that they are entirely separate from the moments that define our physical experience seems like a fallacy and generally incorrect. We cannot divorce the person we are online from the person we are, period. There’s a certain overlap and fluidity between our online personas and the people we believe we are “in real life”. However, behind their screens, users sometimes forget this fact, adopting a bold callousness in their online interactions, and these characteristics combined with the anonymity of the social web allow users to say things that they might not say otherwise. While there may be truth in their comments, users frame conversations differently online and as communicators or producers on the social web, it’s important to recognize the shift in paradigm when discussing users; there are of course the “good” – engaged individuals and communities who positively contribute to discussions, the “bad” – those that can be typically classified as bullies or trolls, and the “untapped” – those that provide valuable insight through seemingly negative packages.
We’ll begin with a recent example of the “good” with the Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, an under-served middle school in Brooklyn. The campaign led by Brandon Stanton, the blogger/photographer behind the wildly popular Humans of New York (HONY) website is without a doubt one of the best feel-good stories around. Launched in 2010, Brandon and his work on Humans of New York aims to chronicle the experience of New Yorkers through photographs and short stories provided by his subjects. His site is hugely successful in both tangible and intangible ways, providing a community for forming friendships, romantic relationships, and micro-fundraising campaigns. HONY readers also frequently comment that his work has the power to restore faith in humanity, one photograph at a time, which is no easy feat. However, the recent crowd-sourcing campaign to help establish an annual trip to Boston for students of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, yielded extraordinary and unparalleled results in both respects, even by HONY’s standards.
Brandon tells the story best and his full interaction can be found online but here’s a quick summary. On a cold day at the end of January this year, Brandon shot a series of portraits of Vidal, a young man from Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighbourhood with a notoriously high crime rate. In standard HONY form, the photograph was accompanied with a caption. Brandon, who has an uncanny talent for interviewing his subjects asked Vidal, a middle schooler, to name the person who had the greatest influence on his life. Vidal named his school principal Nadia Lopez. Immediately after posting Vidal’s story, HONY readers responded with words of encouragement and support, wanting more information on how they could help Vidal, Mott Bridges Academy, and its unfailing leader Ms. Nadia Lopez. Somewhere between that initial photograph and its subsequent follow-up posts, encouraged by the overwhelming support, Brandon announced the idea for a crowd source fundraiser to help the school develop a permanent program allowing incoming scholars to visit Harvard University.
We often hear about slacktivism or the slacktivist -someone who supports social causes in a superficial manner with little to no tangible effect – and this story had the potential to become one of those classic cases but it didn’t. Instead, that fateful encounter between Brandon and Vidal gave birth to one of the most successful Indiegogo campaigns created. Users didn’t just “like” and “share”, they responded in full force with their donations and engagement. In the end, over 1.4 million dollars was raised from a community of 51,466 backers to help the school and the campaign demonstrated the power of online communities in affecting real, actual change. Moreover, in the midst of commenting, many users started discussing larger social issues, other schools in need, and other educators doing tough but important work. From a photograph taken on the street (“in real life”) to be posted on a blog, a community online was able to assist a community “in real life”. It’s phenomenal.
Where the story of Humans of New York presents a prime example of engagement, demonstrating how people rally together and create something great, we also hear stories that do quite the opposite – of trolling and bullying, neither of which are new, but are now made much more public. Countless writers, far more sophisticated and intelligent than I am, have written about this before. The internet and online communities provide a sense of anonymity for its users, which has given rise to public bullying. Even if you don’t believe what is being said online is any worse than what happens in person, the internet and the social web has at least made it more visible and immediate. It doesn’t take long to log into a site as an anonymous user and write spiteful, hurtful messages without time for thought or consideration.
The amount of online negativity even prompted Grace Bonney, the founder and creative vision behind another influential blog, Design Sponge to write this post- “Negativity Online”. (Note: This isn’t the first time Grace has dealt with this topic and she discussed the issue on Heritage Radio in “Dealing with Negativity Online” but the following comments pertain to her more recent article.) Grace certainly speaks from a place of experience and raised many salient issues regarding online criticism and negativity. From her position, in a creative industry, I am certain that Grace, and others like her, face a tremendous amount of unnecessary, unfounded, negative, and quite frankly mean, commentary. Messages and posts sometimes have no other objective than to tear the person down. It’s unsettling to see viciousness to this extent.
While I am confident that Bonney understands the difference between negative criticism and unnecessary cruelty, I don’t think the article does enough to distinguish constructive albeit negative criticism from vitriol. It is at this point that I’d like to pick-up the discussion on the role of negative commentary in online communities and its ability to assist in change.
Before I proceed, I’d also like to mention that Bonney’s article highlights an interesting perspective – that of a blogger or small, independent business. As a blogger, you are the face of your brand and the target of commentary, and rarely are provided the luxury of having a team to help lay bare the criticism from an objective standpoint. Large businesses and organizations have always faced vocal critics and opposition, and have teams to help them navigate backlash. As a blogger, there isn’t always a team to help you cushion the blow, and it presents some unique challenges, which I’d like to explore further in a future post.
Returning to the matter at hand, in a dream scenario, the launch of new projects and publishing of posts results in collective praise- your community of readers, potential business partners and, future connections all in synch with your vision – only offering criticism in a well articulated, thoughtful package, allowing for engaging discourse and discussion. The reality is that this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes unfortunately, insightful criticism comes in a less refined, less polished form, especially in the context of bloggers and independent businesses. Commentators don’t always realize that on the other side of their favourite blog or small business is a living, breathing, feeling human being and that interaction with these people isn’t as filtered as it is when interacting with a big business. Otherwise helpful advice becomes garbled in a clumsy, messy way – instead of writing “I don’t agree with you regarding this, this, and this” it becomes “you’re dumb, and this sucks”. Although the delivery leaves much to be desired, it’s not enough to chalk everything up as online hate, bullying, or trolling and it’s important to dig deeper to understand the users’ intent. This isn’t to absolve users of responsibility or suggest that bloggers should subject themselves to anything that’s hurled at them -abuse is abuse and in those circumstances, it needs to be shut down – but it demonstrates that not all negative remarks are made equal. We need to identify those times that we need to set aside our bruised egos and examine what is being said, even if it’s a tough pill to swallow. At the root of a negative comment may be insightful information.
So how do we distinguish constructive feedback in ugly packaging from generally unproductive opinions? Whether you’re working as part of a team representing an organization, business, well known brand or working out of your home office, take a breath and step back before responding. We’re all human and respond emotionally when we feel we’ve been criticized. Assess the situation and determine the motive behind the message. This hardly seems ground breaking but the number of organizations which fail to grasp this concept is surprising, and a search through #PRfails will reveal a world of poorly thought out situations based on knee-jerk reactions. With a bit of distance and (hopefully) perspective, the next step is to listen, and truly comprehend the matter at hand and we may even find that sometimes the original comments weren’t as negative as we first thought.
Using an example here in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA), where we face issues with our public transportation, let us turn our attention to institutions such as the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and Metrolinx, which oversees GO Transit, Union Pearson Transit, (which connects the downtown hub to our international airport), and Presto (a fare payment system). Both agencies are facing problems with a growing population and declining infrastructure, coupled with competing politics and policies which relegate major plans and changes to a state of limbo. This winter was particularly difficult for both the TTC and GO Transit, with frigid temperatures and more snowfall than we’ve had in many years. These uncontrollable weather conditions took an additional toll on the already stressed system, making travel delays, cancellations, and over packed cars a regular fixture for the daily commute. Anytime this happened, and it happened frequently, users took to social media to air their frustrations, often in tones of anger and snarkiness, communicating their latest transportation woes online. Both the TTC and GO Transit have established Twitter accounts and each took to this forum, responding to riders and providing (sometimes useful) information about travel delays and changes, as well as hotline numbers and contact information.
At times, their tweets helped mitigate some rider concerns in minor ways – riders felt they were being listened to, and redirected their frustration from the client-facing staff to the situation at hand- on other occasions their interactions were far less successful. However, there was real value in opening channels for conversation, positive and negative, as it provided insight as to how the transportation agencies could improve operations to meet customer needs. Beneath the layers of frustrated and angry rhetoric was some useful information.
In this series of tweets, the user raises many valid points surrounding both the @TTChelps account and the TTC itself. In my opinion, she’s thoughtful, concise, and doesn’t sugarcoat her thoughts. To others, they may perceive it differently, which we see from the head of customer service at the TTC, Sue Motahedin’s response, which isn’t inherently problematic but possesses an air of defensiveness. Moreover, while I wouldn’t expect Ms. Motahedin to divulge all the inner workings of the TTC or plan a complete overhaul of their practices based on a series of tweets, her response didn’t appear to address what the original user was actually saying. This is especially interesting when contrasted with interactions from GO Transit, which is embedded below.
via Twitter @GOtransit
In both situations with the TTC and GO transit, how the organizations utilize this information and what changes they make will be complicated because the topic of public transportation is just that – complicated and fraught with multiple, often diverging views representing multiple levels of government, opposing parties, and groups of people across varying demographics. The solution to their problems won’t be easy and it’s not something that public relations or any number of tweets can fix. But what this example reveals is that we can learn a lot from feedback, even if it is negative and it illustrates a need to refine our ability to listen, wade through all the negativity and find kernels of truth, however minor they may be.
I realize in my discussion that I have included a wide array of examples, varying in subject matter and across multiple platforms. I recognize my biases, I don’t consider this post to be exhaustive, and I know it has its flaws. However, what I hope to have addressed, even superficially, is the fact that interactions on the social web are very similar to those in person – complicated, nuanced, and subjective. What one person finds problematic may not hold true for another. Not all stories can be as obviously positive or successful as the example of Humans of New York, where an already engaged community comes together to usher in change in such a unanimous way. More often, reaction can be mixed running the gamut of overwhelmingly supportive to complete disdain, or even absolute indifference. As producers of content, we hope for the best and aim to build a network and community of like minded people to share ideas and implement positive change. The path however is rarely smooth or unhindered. Whether we work as part of a large team representing an organization or alongside a small collective/ independently, criticism is sometimes difficult to take – we want to hear the glowing reviews, not the things we did wrong or should have done differently- but we need to take the good along with the bad. We need to hear it all in order to be better. Conversely, as users of the social web, we need to be more aware of tone and messaging, engaging in debate in a more thoughtful, conscientious manner, much as we would in person. While there may be positive motivation behind difficult criticism, mutual respect and courtesy is necessary if we’re to build a better community and create change in the process.
For those that believe their online presence can somehow be isolated from the “real world”, that idea is just a myth. Instead what we see is a greater intersection between our digital and physical lives and the truth is that anyone that participates online, whether they do so in a positive or destructive manner, is contributing to this discourse – for better or for worse. Events that happen online have the ability to affect outcomes beyond social media, beyond the screen, and have as real a consequence as the events we perceive in person.