Fouling the public sphere: Can I avoid causing social media harm?

I’ve pondered for years the dilemmas of using social media.

Quill & InkThere I find ready communication with long-time friends, who rarely use email any more. There I can easily share information, uplift, and humor with a broader readership. Yet there I am also drawn down into the anger, resentment, and despair that seems the default setting for our culture.

How does one discern a way to positive engagement with what is now our dominant public forum?

The public sphere

In  their early days, social media were perceived as a great boon to the democratic ideal. The huge global connectivity offered a chance for people everywhere to join in on constructive public discourse.1 The public sphere,2 it was hoped, would be extended to the entire world.

Then things changed.

In their December 2019 article in The Atlantic, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks,” Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell write that

The Atlantic, December 2019The problem may not be connectivity itself but rather the way social media turns so much communication into a public performance [emphasis added].

We often think of communication as a two-way street…. What happens…when grandstands are erected along both sides of that street and [everyone can be] passing judgment and offering commentary?

The popularity of outrage

When you get to tell someone off, you might feel pretty good for a while, but somehow the sense of righteous indignation and hatred grows, and it hurts you. It’s as if you pick up hot coals with your bare hands and throw them at your enemy. If the coals happen to hit him, he will be hurt. But in the meantime, you are guaranteed to be burned.
— from “Seek long-term relief,” The Pocket Pema Chödrön (95)

Once social media exchange becomes public performance, a new dimension comes into play.

The social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term sociometer to describe the inner mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we’re doing in the eyes of others.

We don’t really need self-esteem, Leary argued; rather, the evolutionary imperative is to get others to see us as desirable partners for various kinds of relationships.

Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see.

Here’s where it gets dangerous. The authors write that “If you constantly express anger in your private conversations, your friends will likely find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, the payoffs are different—outrage can boost your status.”

Angry emoticonResearchers at NYU and Pew Research Center have found that each moral or emotional word on Twitter increases the virility of a tweet by 20%, and that indignant disagreement doubles the number of “likes” and “shares” on Facebook.

Philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke use the phrase moral grandstanding to describe “what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum.”

Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.”

Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage.

Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.

Does this sound all too painfully familiar?

The lure of “clicking”

As any number of social media critics have pointed out, Google, Facebook, et al., are advertising agencies.  Their revenue comes from selling advertisers access to their users, based on analysis of “big data” about the preferences of those users.

Therefore, the motive for so-called social media innovations is primarily the increasing of user engagement: “The more I click, the more data they get.”

1. Timelines & News Feeds

Between 2002 and 2004, the new realm of social media was mostly tools that were just intended to help users connect with friends.  In 2006, though, Twitter introduced the timeline: a constant flow of updates that seduced users with “a new way of consuming information—an unending stream of content that, to many, felt like drinking from a fire hose.”  Facebook introduced its own version, the News Feed, in 2009 [emphasis added].

2. Endorsement buttons

In 2009, Facebook also added the “Like” button.  As we saw above, this enticement to engagement works even better when users are hitting Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry, instead of just Like.

3. Engagement algorithms

Facebook added an even more intrusive innovation in 2009,

an algorithm that determined which posts a user would see, based on predicted “engagement”—the likelihood of an individual interacting with a given post, figuring in the user’s previous likes. This innovation tamed the fire hose, turning it into a curated stream [emphasis added].

The News Feed’s algorithmic ordering of content flattened the hierarchy of credibility. Any post by any producer could stick to the top of our feeds as long as it generated engagement. “Fake news” would later flourish in this environment, as a personal blog post was given the same look and feel as a story from The New York Times.

This change opened the door to all sorts of social media dangers.

4. Retweeting & Sharing

Finally, there is the matter of passing on content via social media:

Twitter also made a key change in 2009, adding the “Retweet” button. Until then, users had to copy and paste older tweets into their status updates, a small obstacle that required a few seconds of thought and attention [emphasis added].

The Retweet button essentially enabled the frictionless spread of content. A single click could pass someone else’s tweet on to all of your followers—and let you share in the credit for contagious content. In 2012, Facebook offered its own version of the retweet, the “Share” button, to its fastest-growing audience: smartphone users.

This immense restructuring of the process has caused irreversible changes in the world.  There is now vast, almost instantaneous transfer of both authenticated and spurious information, of both healing and hurtful and subversive content, 24/7, around the globe.

Discerning what to share

On the other hand, if we begin to surrender to ourselves—begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like—we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s under all that harshness. By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others—if it’s done properly, with proper understanding—we benefit as well. The Pocket Pema Chödrön (96)

Blue Water Lily (detail)" by Mike Shell, Biltmore House gardens, Asheville, NC (8/3/2018)

This thought from Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön opens my eyes when I consider sharing content through social media: “Drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like.

I’m beginning to frame a personal social media discipline informed by this teaching.

Noting my feeling reactions — I view a number of online sources each day: newspapers, e-magazine, blogs, Facebook, etc. When I experience a noteworthy reaction to something, I try to stop to consider what that item has hooked or triggered within me.

Personal queries: Is my reaction about my own likes, fears, resentments? Is it a response of empathy toward others? Is it an acknowledgment—happy or unhappy—of information I believe others need to know about?

Checking my motives —  I know that I crave acknowledgement from others, so the lure of the click is very strong. I want people to appreciate my endorsements and my sarcastic or angry or joking comments.

More so, when I  am angry about or gloat over something online, it’s not just that I want to share those feelings. I want people to affirm and reshare them.

Personal queries: Yet this means I am passing on outrage for the sake of self-gratification. Do I want to be doing that?

Considering what I feel versus what I value — If I simply endorse or share social media content based on my reactions, I leave it up to other readers to discern (or not) how my personal concerns with a given topic interact, not only with my feelings, but also with my testimonies to a larger truth.

So what can I do?,

1. Timelines & News Feeds

Reflections: We now know that digital media fascinate the brain—literally. Screen input of any sort, so long as it looks or feels “busy,” can bypass the cerebral cortex and stimulate the the brain stem directly, as if by an IV of drugs. Have you ever watched a fussy infant’s eyes glaze over when a parent holds a smartphone up to its face?

Personal queries: How often each day, each hour, do I recheck email or Facebook or other social media to see if there’s anything “new”?  How might I lay down the obsessiveness of this habit?

2. Endorsement buttons

Reflections: If I click any of these endorsement buttons, I am “buying” status in the public performance.  If I click buttons with a higher “moralistic” weighting—especially Angry—I am sharing in and boosting the outrage.

Personal queries: How might I temper my engagement, minimize my feeding of pubic sensation and outrage, and deny endorsement to shared hurtful posts?  How might I center into silence and consider, before I reflexively “vote” for hurtful content?

3. Engagement algorithms

Reflections: Most obviously, algorithms put users into “silos” of like-minded online acquaintances who echo each other’s attitudes and preferences.  One no longer sees opposing views unless a “friend” shares something “outrageous” from another source.

People can feel screened from the “flame wars”3 of earlier days, but they are also screened from civil disagreement and debate with others who have well-grounded yet different views.

Social media preferences as "thought balloons"Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to adjust one’s “preferences” through settings or actions, in order to open oneself to a broader selection of online users.

Social media companies want us in those silos—those marketing niches—because that eases the automated grouping of advertising targets based on shared interests.

Personal queries: Do I want to make my online presence more open, more vulnerable to people with differing experiences and opinions?  If I could find ways to change my settings and online behavior in this direction, how would I deal with the overwhelming power of moral grandstanding—my own as well as that of others?

4. Retweeting & Sharing

Here is where the real challenge of ethical creativity comes into play. For about a year now, I’ve been experimenting with a practice guided by both my personal leadings and my librarian’s professionalism. My central principle is that I want to teach by sharing, not just to pass along outrage.  Here are some of the principle guidelines I’m playing with:

  • If I feel a strong reaction to a news item or meme or article, I resist the temptation just to share my outrage by sharing that item.
  • Among those outrageous items (or, in fact, also the “good news”), if I do share, it is because I judge that there is new information that others ought to learn about.
  • For example, I read foreign sources and I search beyond the so-called “headline” or “most popular” stories to find those people may not see shared online. For example, I might find an article from Al Jazeera about coronavirus in the Third World, rather than looking only at the USA. I might find a “human interest” or “nature” story that gives the lie to our horrified and despairing images of modern humanity.
  • I know that most of us, including myself, tend to react to and then endorse and/or share items based solely on their headlines. We  often don’t actually read the articles, or if we do we only skim enough to confirm or counter our feeling reactions.
  • KEY PRACTICE: If I do choose to share something, I search the text of the item for an excerpt or two that will highlight the core themes and messages, even for those who do not read the item. In the least, I hope this mitigates the tendency to share just based on headlines. At most, it may invite people to open the link and read the article.

Quill & InkEveryone makes their own choices, and what I write here is not prescriptive. Instead, I’ve written this article to describe my personal seeking for a Friendlier method of using social media.

I am curious to learn how others respond to my concerns and suggestions. Please let me know.

Mike Shell

Image Sources & Notes

Image: “Social media metrics,” in “Social media metrics: Using big data and social media to improve retail customer experience,” by Daniel Newman, IBM Big Data & Analytical Hub (9/15/2015).

Image: “Blue Water Lily (detail)” by Mike Shell, Biltmore House gardens, Asheville, NC (8/3/2018).


  1. See, for example, “The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings,” by Heather Brown, Emily Guskin and Amy Mitchell, in Pew Research Center: Journalism & Media (11/29/2012).
  2. Public Sphere,” by Hartmut Wessler, Rainer Freudenthaler, Oxford Biographies:

    The “public sphere” is generally conceived as the social space in which different opinions are expressed, problems of general concern are discussed, and collective solutions are developed communicatively. Thus, the public sphere is the central arena for societal communication. In large-scale societies, mass media and, more recently, online network media support and sustain communication in the public sphere.

  3. See, for example, “Remembering the 90s flame wars: a simpler time of cyberbullying,” by Stephanie Buck on Timeline (8/19/2016).

2 comments On Fouling the public sphere: Can I avoid causing social media harm?

  • Mike–this post is so thoughtful and helpful. I’m going to share it on my own timeline!

    The questions you’re asking are ones I’m asking myself, and your answers are similar to the ones I’ve come up with. Most important to me has been tracking my own desire for some kind of “validation” from others, and I’ve tried hard to govern that thoughtfully. And yes, I’m kind of obsessed with checking, way more than I should or want to!

    On the other hand, there are reasons to stay there, as you’ve pointed out. In part, I do want to put out the most positive energy that I can, without going the route of “spiritual bypassing,” which so many folks do without realizing it. Doing our own inner work is vital (especially as Quakers!), and I want to gently encourage others to do that also.

    And like you, I rarely use the “angry” emoji. Once in a while…but I do use the “sad” one now and then. I hadn’t really thought about those as “voting,” but your point is valid and thought-provoking.

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your thoughts!

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