Social MediaTo Internet trolls and bullies everywhere - great news! Facebook just announced it is close to making a “long awaited” dislike button, while Apple has plans to release a middle finger emoji as part of its next software update in November. If you use the WhatsApp on an Android device, the middle finger emoji has been at your disposal since August.

The Internet hates it when you have to work so hard at making others feel badly.

Maybe it’s just me, but these new online communication tools seem entirely unnecessary. After all, trolls, bullies, and haters have being doing just fine with their words. Just watch late night TV for one the many of the Mean Tweets segments where celebrities read the cruel things others say about them online. But that’s minor league compared to words tweeted by some politicians (formerly known as adults kids look up to). Donald Trump seems to be the frontrunner not only amongst the Republican presidential candidates, but also in his ability to craft tweets to inspire bullies everywhere, like calling debate moderator Meghan Kelley a “bimbo” after the first Republican debate. And that was him on a nice day.

When Did Public Discourse Become So Uncivil?

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it has democratized journalism. It’s one of the terrible things about the Internet too.

Today anybody with a connected device can post his or her own thoughts online and in an instant become a published writer. In addition, these thoughts can be re-tweeted, shared and reposted by others helping them reach, in the words of danah boyd, “vast invisible audiences” and at the same time turning the re-tweeters into instant publishers. It’s easy to forget that these simple acts wield unprecedented power.

Every post, share, tweet, and retweet means something, because someone, somewhere is either reading it or is being effected by it, and even possibly sharing with their friends and followers. In the olden days there were gatekeepers to make sure what got published was fairly accurate, and generally civil. Since these people are largely non-existent on the Internet, we are our own editors.

The upside to all this unmitigated public discourse is, of course, that much of what is published and shared is excellent stuff and can even lift us up when we are feeling down.  As Author and Internet Advocate Sue Scheff writes in How Social Media Helps Transcend Grief, “The fact is Facebook has a way of making you feel like a rock star on your birthday, and giving you strength from virtual friends (you barely know) when you need it most.”

Teenage Girl ThinkingStill, it’s a delicate balance out there in cyberspace and sometimes the online haters, bullies, and trolls just seem to have more time or energy, or both, to tip the balance in their favor, which raises the question…

Do We Really Need Tools That Make Spreading Meanness Easier?

In Magid: Facebook's New Feature Won't Actually Be For 'Disliking' Something, ConnectSafely’s Larry Magid, a safety advisor for Facebook, writes that he’s “pretty sure it will be used to convey empathy and support, not mean comments.” He reports that in a town hall meeting Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media giant really wants to offer a way for users to “express empathy.”  Both think the so-called “dislike” button might make this easier.

I hope they are right and this new feature will become a handy way to let someone know you dislike the fact they’ve been hit by a truck or that their grandmother just died. But frankly, I don’t think it’s too much work just to tap out the words “I’m so sorry.” Automating empathy seems like a good way to make it virtually meaningless.

Media Psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge, an expert on the relationships between media and human behavior, assesses this new feature in Facebook’s New ‘Dislike’ Button

The implications of a Dislike button (or whatever it is ultimately called) are layered. How will Facebook users react and click?... There is always the chance in this environment that the button is culturally appropriated and, no matter what it says on its label, is used as a sign of rejection or ‘dislike’ rather than a ‘support in bad times’

As the founder and a teacher of Cyber Civics, a middle school digital media literacy program that teaches students how to use technology safely, respectfully, and competently, I agree with Dr. Rutledge. These new tools, unless mitigated by conversation and education, could help further sink public discourse. For example, you don’t have to be a child psychologist to guess how kids might use these buttons. It’s not that kids are bad or nasty, on the contrary, they’re kids and it’s their job to test the tech innovations that adult think up. So imagine if when you were a kid the bathroom wall offered a handy device making it quick and easy to “unlike” or, worse, give a middle finger to anyone who happened to get under your skin that day. Who wouldn’t be tempted to take advantage of such a convenient feature that might ultimately be hurtful to its target?

Streaming ServiceAny new tool, from an automobile to a connected device, is used better when it comes with basic instructions that help turn how it is used into culturally normative behavior, like stopping at red light.  Since appropriating social media norms from adult role models isn’t very constructive, our next best hope is teaching digital citizenship, either in school or via the social networks releasing these new features.

The upcoming Digital Citizenship Summit in West Hartford, CT, on October 3, will address topics related to teaching digital citizenship and returning civility to public discourse. At this first-ever event, digital citizenship experts, educators, parents, and industry leaders will discuss how to bring ethics, responsibility, and etiquette to technology use and the timing couldn’t be better.

So What’s Next?

As my grandmother used to say, when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade. So here are three virtual ways to do this:

Post Positive. Make someone’s day by saying something kind online. Wish someone a happy birthday. Share condolences with real words. Help tip the balance towards positive online discourse.

Think Before You Share. Before hitting that re-tweet or share button, take a moment to ask yourself if the sentiment you are about to republish worthy of being republished. Consider if the message is consistent with your online reputation.

Be a Conscious Consumer. Remember, social media companies serve the marketplace. So if you have an opinion about if or how Apple should release the middle finger emoji or Facebook its dislike button, then say so. As Dr. Rutledge writes, “While I’m sure this challenge is on Facebook’s radar, they have an opportunity (or moral obligation?) to figure out how to manage the release and model its intended use.”

If you agree with her, as I do, then use your journalistic powers to say so.
After all, that’s what I just did. If you “like” this please say so!

*After the article was published Facebook announced that they will rolluot a new "Reactions" button, which lets users respond to posts with six emoji-inspired faces, as well as the traditional Like. The use of emoji reactions will take the place of the proposed dislike button.*

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