The Internet is forever.  For those of us that grew up in the pre-commercial internet/social media age, communication was temporary.  A face to face conversation or phone call evaporated from memories over time.  Video tape degraded.  The written word could be lost to time.  In the digital age, the public communication tone, tenor, and content is saved in perpetuity.  Even when things are “deleted”, screen shots of posts or a video captured can save a conversation.  In the world of business, nonprofit leadership, or governance, the things you post can come back to haunt you.  From a community perspective, the tone of regional messaging can either lift an initiative up, or tear it down.  The Emporia region is not immune to the negative or positive impacts of digital messaging.  So, let’s dive into a few of the issues.
Public versus Private-
Should some messaging through digital mechanisms be considered private? Probably.  If you are limiting a group online to share information through a private chat, a select group text (or individual text), or you have set a membership forum that restricts access, there probably should be a limited expectation that the messaging stay within the bounds of the individuals associated with those messaging limitations.  But, in the real world, digital messaging doesn’t always work that way.  People can (and will) save texts, messages from Facebook “groups”, or other digital forums that they may forward to other people or use at a later date; keep that in mind when you choose to communicate with others.
When in (the digital) Public-
If you post on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or any other social media platform, you should expect your post to be public.  These are all public forums that are built for the express purpose of sharing information publicly.  Retroactively deleting information posted doesn’t always prevent data from remaining in the public consciousness because most computers have a “print screen” function, and almost all mobile devices have a screen capture function (essentially taking a picture of the screen).  Once you post on social media- it’s out there.
The blending of public and private personas means that information shared personally can impact businesses/organizations/elected officials.  If an employee posts something idiotic on social media and your customers see it, they can hold a business accountable.  If you post something ill advised on social media as a private person, people can still hold your organization/business accountable.
Does this mean that everyone is automatons?
Political correctness is often in the eye of the beholder.  There are certain things that will offend small portions of the public that may not be offensive to the average citizen (or your target market).  It’s important to remain genuine or people probably aren’t going to pay attention to any social media posting.  However, your right to say something doesn’t insulate you from the consequences of what you said.  Posts that make negative statements against groups of people (event participants, consumers, belief systems, demographic groups) almost always backfire.
So, what are the “rules” of digital media discourse?
There aren’t any real “rules”, but we are now seeing the first generation that grew up in a social media based world (Gen Z), and we can learn from those that navigated the minefield of public posts that never really go away.  Again, no one is stopping anyone from saying what is on their mind.  Healthy public discourse concerning difficult (sometimes controversial) topics is critical to a functioning democracy (and community), but there are some strategies that can mitigate damage for those in the public eye (in a smaller community, the majority of us are in the public eye).
1. Do your research before you post, and don’t be afraid to apologize if your understanding of an issue evolves with new evidence.  If you post links from sources that aren’t credible, you may appeal to an audience that is searching for dialogue that reinforces their existing opinions rather than requiring your online “friends” to think critically.  If you are posting online, you have access to the internet, and that gives you access the most extensive research library the world has ever known.  Use your credible research wisely.
2. Social media is interactive (people have responses, ask questions, etc.), so don’t “vague-book” (making cryptic statements online that may or may not pertain to a certain topic).  Vague statements don’t insulate a poster from responsibility; they attract attention.
3. Don’t be an emotional poster.  Take a breath and think through your statement prior to sharing it with the world.  Everyone has a bad day, and if you deal with the public in any fashion you will eventually have a situation that makes you question the future of humanity, but take those venting conversations off-line with your friends.
4. Healthy dialogues online are important, but you have to understand who you are communicating with.  The same things that are said about an individual, a business, or an organization on-line are most certainly being said offline.  The online forum gives you the the opportunity to respond in a fashion that inspires positive growth.  However, there are those that view the on-line world as a sparring forum (some refer to these folks as “trolls”, or “keyboard warriors).  Sometimes the best strategy is avoidance. There are some people that simply don’t require engagement because the conversation has minimal chances of fostering a positive outcome.
5. Digital media is now a part of our world, so you have to get used to it.  At its best, social media can be used to share positive information with friends and family.  You can gain exposure to unique experiences, businesses, and expand your thought processes.  At it’s worst, digital media is a source of disinformation, a gripe session broadcast to the world, and a reinforcement of negative world views.  Your online experience is often governed by your actions, so act in a way that reflects how you think digital media should operate, but avoidance of digital technology isn’t an option for most.
6. Your first instinct should direct you offline.  Social media shrinks the world.  We can communicate with people from all over the planet pretty easily now.  In the digital realm, we can find websites with helpful information, including contact information, at a moment’s notice.  It’s pretty easy to reach out to most people to gain information/perspective prior to posting online.
7. Social media is about the “me”, but the world isn’t.  When engaging digital media, we generally think about issues from our own unique perspectives.  The relative uniqueness of our individual perspectives points to the reality that others have different perspectives that are based off of their unique experiences.  Your digital messaging should recognize that people are interacting with your post from outside of your life, so a “venting” based post may feel like an “attack” to other community members (and current or potential customers).
8. Solvency is quickly becoming a lost art.  Digital platforms have the ability to connect people with relevant resources quickly and efficiently.  Old fashioned “networking” events are quickly dying as a result of social media convenience.  With the power of interconnected people across the globe that can share information and ideas, one would think that the worlds problems would quickly disappear.  How we choose to communicate can either harness intellect for good, or enhance tribalism through an “us against them” or an oversimplification of complex issues.  Asking yourself the goal of your discussion prior to a post is important.  Not every post has to “save the world” (posting information won’t save the world; that requires doing things much more substantial than clicking “like”), but it is important to think about what you are trying to achieve when communicating on worldwide forums.
Digital media is unavoidable for most people.  The technology that allows for online social interaction is neither good or bad, but people can utilize the technology positively or negatively.  Social interactions online shouldn’t be restricted to rainbows and unicorns because talking through issues and gaining access to resources that may help people through difficult issues.  When people are a little more thoughtful about digital discussions, they can enhance community dialogue.  A lack of foresight when engaging in online discussions can damage community buy-in, area pride, and consumer loyalty.  Let us use our voices and actions to leave things better than we found them.