Social media kerfuffles

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santiago

I’ve been guilty of it, failing at holding back, and being caught in the trap of a pointless because juvenile exchange on some comment thread or other on Facebook.

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And because my personal standards demand that one does not delete anything one puts online, there is nothing but embarrassment in the aftermath.

One pays the price for not thinking before clicking. But, too, there is this: sometimes it is quite liberating to unleash the self, shooting from the hip as she might be, shameless glory and all, online. Sometimes, too, we think that reason can reign.

I am grateful for my sense of irony. If not my sense of humor. It allows me, too, to admit my mistakes, virtual and otherwise.

But this is something that too many in social media Pilipinas don’t have the capacity for – the humor maybe, the responsibility, probably. A better sense really of how social media should work, what speaking to a public means, and how online discourse can be quite a brilliant display of contemporary intellect and daring, if we were all brave enough to face the music, i.e., the consequences.

Also brave enough to know that sometimes we are wrong. We over read, we misread, we mess up. We admit it, too.

It takes years. I started blogging in 2008 over at radikalchick.com, something that my techie-kuya all the way in the Netherlands set up for me. His rules were mine: no deleting comments from readers, unless it uses cuss words, and gets too personal. No deleting blog entries, even the ones that seem out of context, or out of place, given what the blog might evolve into. No ignoring questions.

The task was clear: you engage readers, you pay the price of getting reactions that shoot from the hip, that are thoughtless, if not unthinking. But you also get to have discussions with people who do take the time to think about what you said, and engage with you without being condescending or pointing out how young you are, or how inexperienced. You get the chance to blog again about the same topic and change your mind about it.

For a stretch of time you will have no readers. But once you get them on the blog, and in the other online media platforms you write for, you realize that there is a real public here. And there are interesting discussions to be had, there is the creation of public discourse that’s significant because current.

Because unlike print, where responses need to go through the process of a letter to the editor, writing that is online is not only open to readers and their responses, but even more so to being shared via social media. The latter of course is a totally different ballgame from a blog, where a blogger will have control over comments and links, and everything in between. Social media meanwhile is a free for all—if not a declaration of open season—and you only need to fall victim to a comment thread or two, to figure that out.

For much of social media Pilipinas, there is a sense of how the engagement is still far from actually working with a public. Privacy settings ascertain after all a sense of comfort, if not a recreation of the relationships that are outside of social media. In this sense what one really hears are echoes of oneself, and what happens is that the institutions we are part of, the cliques and groups, become the limits of our online engagement, too.

It defeats the purpose of writing online, really, especially when one considers how this virtual space should be about a bigger readership, a sense of a public beyond what it is we would otherwise have.

Right now though it makes for the most interesting of Facebook comment threads. There is that one that unfolds in front of your eyes, where the literary establishment you called out on for patronage politics reveals itself to be exactly about that, albeit virtually. There is that one that people start messaging you about because it’s about you—except that you’ve been blocked from that user’s account, and as such you are being talked about without you being able to respond. There is too that one that is in the form of a letter made public, one that is premised on friendship, yet evades the task of doing a response devoid of the personal.

Incidents like these lead to a reassessment of what it means to engage with people online, and how far online discourse in fact is part of the bigger public discourse by default. Is it that what we put “out there” in the virtual world is exactly the same as having conversations with friends, ascertaining for us virtual pats on the back? Is it that we create the conditions precisely for kuyog, for setting up one person and opening her up to attacks, knowingly or unknowingly—maybe unthinkingly? –because that virtual crowd looks large enough no matter how small it might be?

Probably the high point, at least for me, is the realization that fewer and fewer are independently (virtually) thinking, and the task is not so much to open discussions up by acknowledging differences in opinion, as it seems to be about virtual finger pointing at one who thinks differently. The task is not so much to unpack the discussion, as it is to hear each other speak agreeably, creating an echo chamber that everyone’s privy to, but does not necessarily participate in.

In the end, there is no looking at a comments thread to take stock of what one might have mistakenly thrown in there; after all, it shouldn’t matter when the rest of those voices agree with you. There is no shaking our heads at the absurdity of thinking that these words matter at all – when enough of you think the same things, when that is important enough to tide you over until the next issue that matters.

But also, and sometimes, there is decency still. Last year, Leloy Claudio wrote me a private message, informing me that he had been assigned to reply to a piece I wrote for GMANewsOnline. The note was unexpected but appreciated, as it spoke of a mutual respect, and I knew then that the response would be far from personal, and would in the end speak of our ideological differences and nothing else.

To me there is still this kind of decency to be had in the virtual world, even as it might have its own set of rules, its own universe altogether. It just takes some practice, and a clear sense of how social media might be used towards, how online writing is important to, the creation of discourse that is for public consumption – whatever public is out there to engage with.

We used to think the pen mightier than the sword. Over on social media that can only be said if we are not hiding behind privacy settings, if we are not content with talking to ourselves the way we would at a party. Ultimately what online writing and social media demand of us is the ability to engage with strangers. Of course we need a pair of balls to do exactly that.

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