will the last person on Facebook please turn off the lights?

No worries, friends. The Intramuralist is not abdicating its social media presence. But I must admit: successfully navigating the tenuous waters where online conversation supposedly takes place has become a delicate art form. I’m being kind.

Facebook’s current mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Instagram desires “to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen.”

Twitter says they want “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve — and do not detract from — a free and global conversation.”

So we ask: is social media really bringing us closer, as things happen, in ways that improve our conversation?

Healthy conversation implies respectful interactiveness. It involves both speaking and listening — specifically, listening well. But in my very non-scientific sense, I contend good people have forgotten how to speak and how to listen; it’s not even close. Radio journalist and former NPR host, Celeste Headlee, and I agree.

“We’re not listening to each other,” says Headlee repeatedly. In her popular TEDx talk and succeeding book, she teaches us “How to Have Conversations That Matter”… how to have healthy conversation… that “art,” I believe — that necessary “art” — which we have forgotten…

  1. “Don’t multi-task.” Be present. Be fully attentive to those with whom you are interacting.
  2. “Don’t pontificate.” She adds, “You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn.” The expression of one’s opinions in a pompous and dogmatic way is not attractive nor effective. As “Bill Nye the Science Guy” said, “Everyone that you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” We would be prudent to remember that.
  3. Use open-ended questions.” Headlee encourages utilization of who, what, where, when, why and how… “what was that like?”… “how did that feel?” Ask another. Think about their response.
  4. “Go with the flow.” Follow the course of the conversation. Let go of the tangent thoughts that come into your mind that aren’t relevant as the dialogue continues.
  5. “If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.” (Brilliant, I contend!) I appreciate Headlee’s urging to error on the side of caution.
  6. “Don’t equate your experience with theirs.” Isn’t that a challenge these days? We think our reality fits for everyone else. We think we always understand. We would do well to remember that conversations are about two, not “you.”
  7. “Try not to repeat yourself.” Typically that’s evidence we aren’t listening well.
  8. “Stay out of the weeds.” People engaged in healthy conversation care most about the person on the other side of the table, so-to-speak. Sharing all the details means less.
  9. “Listen.” This is the most important aspect of healthy conversation. It’s the most important conversational skill that we can work on, develop, and encourage in others. “When I’m talking, I’m in control. I don’t have to hear anything I’m not interested in.”
  10. “Be interested in other people.” I love Headlee’s added final encouragement from her TEDx talk: “be prepared to be amazed by other people.” Wow… how would social media change if our approach changed? … if we were prepared to be amazed by others more than make personal proclamations?

To be a little more comprehensive, let’s acknowledge what is not included in healthy conversation: 

  • Shame of those who disagree.
  • Insult and attack when we don’t like someone else’s outlook.
  • Unwillingness to allow even the expression of diverse opinion.

Hence, if we employ that which is not considered healthy, we’re not listening. And if we’re not listening, we’re not having conversation. We are then not as wise nor self-aware as we think we are, and we certainly are not contributing positively to the stated missions of social media.

Will social media last? Maybe. But if the unhealthy cycle of shaming, blocking, and shut down continues, the mission statements may not be fulfilled…

… which causes me to modify the infamous, original ’71 sign of the times:

“Will the last person on Facebook please turn out the lights?”