Social media is at once a communication tool, and an identity crafting tool.

Through the power of people transparently seeing each other, and through our correspondence lingering through text far past the point of sound and speech, social media  has a tendency to distill the very best, and the worst in human behaviour. Our need to communicate and connect with the communities of people around us is tied unsettlingly close to our need to manufacture (as true Detectives’ Rust Cole would say) a self.

The tragic events surrounding the recent Santa Barbara shooting have caused many debates that have again brought this idea to the forefront. Two drivers that are so closely linked, that they often become indistinguishable to the naked eye. Our moral compass, and our reputation in the eyes of others.

When issues such as this are communicated to us, our immediate reaction becomes the most powerful, disgust, despair, horror just to name a few. After these tidal waves of emotion wash over us, we are left to contemplate how we will let it shape us and social media becomes a marketplace for conversation, and for us to illustrate and sell out newly shaped identity to the communities around us.

Issues of this magnitude form the catalyst for a forum coming together, and it’s in this regard that I think social media has a tendency to bring out both the best, and the worst in people.

Now when i say best/ worst I don’t mean in the quality of content within their responses. Some of the worst responses I have ever seen are the most articulately made.

For many people, issues such as this strike a deep and resonant chord. They are the catalyst for people to become tremendously vocal and unite under a common belief, attitude or experience. These people are passionate, and they leap into the debate and fray without question. Why? Because their moral compass demands it of them. Raw and often beautiful writing that exposes a person and their opinions. Seeing them come together, just as how they have in the instance of #yesallwomen can be something to marvel at.

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However as I see new communities of passionate people forming rapidly, I often marvel at how the outsider responds.

I define the outsider in this case as the person who may not necessarily have an immediate link to the issue at hand. When so many of us come forth as being connected to something larger, what does the outsider do?

At best this person is emotionally swayed, at worst they are opportunistic.

One thing is for certain, in these situations there are social pressures. One must respond, but how do they?

Deeply entrenched in this decision making process in the need to belong, the need to be a part of a community. To conform to “the right” idea to curate that into your online fingerprint, your identity. To say “This is me, this is what i believe in, i fight for right.”

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Key here is the concept of being “righteous” and rising above the tyranny of “evil”, but more pertinently when it comes to social issues: rising above ignorance.

When we’re presented with a morally bankrupt enemy,  be it Kony, Elliot Roger or Fred Phelps, their ignorant attitudes/ paradigms/ beliefs are immediately flung in our minds to the furthest, darkest end of the “evil – good” spectrum. Their ignorance is tagged, and for many the solution is to run as far to the opposite end of the field, as fast as possible.

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In our haste to be perceived as less ignorant than those around us, I see many people descend into a game of “one-upmanship”. Putting down those around them and de-constructing their arguments in order to further themselves in a moral sense, to distance themselves further from the spectrum. These arguments often employ statements like “If you think X you’re just as bad as Y.” or “Stop blaming the X and start talking about the REAL issue.” Many of these people are entirely right, too, they’ve identified a deeper component of the issue at hand and their using that insight to leverage themselves further along the spectrum. Or is it to contribute to overall social debate?

The motive is the key- and I, at different times have felt the need to do both.

“The real issue was his mental illness.”
“The real issue was that he was a white, upper class male and the police disregarded the warning signs.”
“The real issue is our perception of gender roles in society.”
“The real issue is everyone’s inability to look the real issue in the face!”

These arguments are at once one of my favourite things, and my most hated thing about social media. It is when the line between “identity crafting” and “opinion-forum” run so indistinguishably close, around issues that are so emotionally powerfully that things begin to blur. At what point are we fighting for our beliefs? And at what point are we simply morally and intellectually showboating ourselves, a forum where transparent kudos can be cheered at the click of a “like” button for a point well made.

These arguments are absolutely integral to our moral development as society. They’re a catalyst for a richer dialogue and understanding of complex issues. But I take issue with how high the stakes are.

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Our identity, indeed our reputation is at stake. It’s the cost of buying-in to be a part of this discussion. Articulate your point incorrectly, make a single wrong move and you risk having your reputation dragged through mud your position on the morality spectrum, now uncomfortably close to that of the villain.  The winners earn cheers of support and significant clout,

If you were the individual that iinitially forth the victorious idea, or yelled the loudest for them, then the reputational rewards, along with the risks are greater still. After all, you started the movement.

The more traction these arguments receive, the stronger the need to leave the fence and to pick a side. Neutrality, is more often than not, labeled the enemy.

My biggest concern is that the greatest risk is not so much our perspectives, 98% of people know the clearer shades of right from wrong.

Rather the risk is our ability to articulate. To contribute our ideas to these important discussions safely.

I cannot offer any advice on how to navigate around these debates whilst still paying respect to them. However I was deeply impressed by the words of someone else that achieved just that. I shouldn’t be at all surprised, he is, after all a genius:

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– Matt