What Our Social Media-Obsessed Society Can Learn From the Over-50 Crowd


At last month's Oscars, Neil Patrick Harris made an unfortunate joke about a woman's dress. Unfortunate because it was mean-spirited and dissed a woman who was not an actor or a particularly public figure (she won in the Documentary Short category), and even more inappropriate because she had just discussed her son's suicide in her acceptance speech. The "joke" was completely jarring at that point.

When I thought about it afterwards, I assume that Harris saw her dress as she arrived on stage, concocted his zinger and pounced as soon as she finished her speech, before truly digesting her final remarks. And we see this so often these days. Because social media moves so quickly and the world seems to demand an immediate response, people feel the need for instantaneous and often wrong-headed reactions. We see it in jokes like Harris made, in stories that are subsequently discredited, in public shaming episodes that destroy people's lives and in tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing, when the Twittersphere identified the wrong suspects and the media ran with the story. Accuracy is sacrificed for speed, because if you don't make the first comment or write the first story, you might not get your two minutes in the spotlight or, even worse, someone else might get there first.

When I was growing up, media was not omnipresent, and it was rare that an immediate reaction was demanded, received or recorded. There were no computers, no cell phones, no viral videos. You spoke to your friends when you saw them at or after school, or occasionally on the telephone. When a news story broke, you often waited for updates until the next morning when the newspaper came out. It didn't make us better people, but it did mean we had the luxury of time to think before we said or did something harmful. Writing and mailing a letter took more time than dashing off a text or a tweet. Waiting to react to a story allowed you to check your facts. There was generally no way or reason to be anonymous.

Today, people don't give themselves time to think, possibly feeling that delay will make them irrelevant. I've seen the difficulties of waiting too long in my own writing. I tend to mull things over before committing my thoughts to writing, but, as one of my publishing friends chastised me, you can't wait until "the news hook has expired." Since I am frequently guilty of that crime, I often self-censure my writing because it's not current or, as is often the case, I don't have a "news hook" at all.

Obviously, we can't return to the time when I was young, nor would I want to. I love being able to reach my children and friends quickly through a text or email, or hear about an important event when it happens. But our need for immediacy and the anonymity that can accompany Internet posting has, I believe, led to an explosion of hatred, of thoughtless remarks and of mindless trivia that threatens to consume us. Think a celebrity looks awful in an Instagram or Facebook photo? Comment on how horrible he looks and use graphic terms; after all, he asked for it, didn't he? Don't like a politician's ideas? Question her family, her background, her sexual proclivities or her patriotism. Rather than taking a walk or having an actual in-person conversation, spend time answering online quizzes or viewing viral cat videos.

With so many people chasing immediacy and with the sheer number of distractions available, I suppose it's not a surprise that these reactions are multiplying. But I think we can and must be better than that. If not, we will find ourselves unable to filter out the noise, unable to see what is truly important versus what is ephemeral and silly, and very possibly worsening political or racial hatred and strife because of our lack of restraint and inability to wait.

So, what does this have to do with the over-50 crowd? Well, I believe my generation can become an important voice for a little more mindfulness and a little less vitriol. We understand some of the long-term pitfalls of an immediate hateful reaction, and we have lived in a world where people took more time and couldn't hide behind anonymity. So, I'm hoping that this over-50 adult is speaking for many of us when I suggest the following:

Social media isn't going away, but think before you respond or react to a story, an email or a tweet. Think of consequences, think of alternatives, and think about whether what you say will hurt someone and whether they deserve that hurt.

If you have "friends" who post hate language or inappropriate messages on your Facebook page, don't just ignore the posts. Tell your so-called friends to stop and de-friend them if they don't. We need to step up to the plate and tell people that some thoughts are inappropriate and some ways of expression are just plain wrong.

If you have a website, ban anonymous comments. Insist that people use their names.

Try taking active steps to lower the temperature and diffuse hatred. We live in an easily combustible world. There's no need to add to it. Seek out opportunities to meet people in person, rather than sitting in front of a screen 24/7 and hiding behind your anonymity. Go to a town meeting, a student government forum, or a conference. And actually listen to people you disagree with and look for common ground.

Look, I'm not asking you to stop viewing laughing baby videos or making amusingly spiteful comments to friends when you watch the Oscars. Just think a bit before you decide to broadcast your remarks to the world. I bet Neil Patrick Harris wishes he had done just that.

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