“5 Things We Can Each Do To Make Social Media And The Internet A Kinder And More Tolerant Place” With Natalie Pennington Ph.D

Don’t feed the trolls. When you respond and engage with every mean or potentially mean comment about you online, it gives license and opportunity for those behaviors to repeat. Don’t feed the trolls and don’t read the comments.

As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Natalie Pennington. Natalie is an expert in interpersonal communication within the context of communication technology. An assistant professor of communication studies at UNLV, she examines how private topics become public on social networking platforms and the resulting impact on relationships. Her research looks at how users of social media build and maintain relationships, the potential benefits and harms associated with technology use, and social support and grieving online.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Natalie! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Sure! I work as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I teach and research the intersection of communication technology and relationships. I was born and raised in the Midwest and got my Ph.D. from the University of Kansas (rock chalk). I started college the same year Facebook was launched more widely to other colleges (2004) and began studying it as part of my undergraduate degree in communication. I loved doing research, so continued on to become a college professor and have been studying social media ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

For me, every study I do is interesting, or I probably wouldn’t be doing it! But if I had to pick something, I think that it would be the realization that even when people are rude or mean on the internet, that we are more likely to do nothing to end that relationship — even digitally. This goes against a lot of theory and past work on relationship maintenance and communication, and it made me pause and remember just how much the integration of communication technology into our daily lives can shift perspective and expectations.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! Right now, I’m finalizing a paper on a study that looked at how we confront political disagreement online with our friends and family. I saw headlines after the last election about families that were divided due to comments on social media, and I’m hoping that sharing this work can facilitate productive discussion and stronger relationships as we enter another election cycle.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?

To be honest, I think that because I’ve been studying social media since around the time it really took off, it has always made me a little wary of posting much online. You see and hear about things that happen to people — this total pile-on — because a person made a joke that people didn’t realize was a joke, or maybe the person was insensitive. As a result, I think that I’ve always tried to be deliberate about my online presence, which usually means I post very little publicly online.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I’ve had instances where I didn’t know something I wrote seemed mean or harsh, and later realized it had upset someone. I suspect that happens to a lot of people. It is a good reminder that the ability for things to get lost in translation with technology are higher. Humor and sarcasm are two of the big ones — my sense of humor may not be your sense of humor.

Text-based interactions online are especially easy to misconstrue. If I just need to ask my husband to pick something up from the store, a quick text is great because there is little room for misinterpreting that message. But if we need to have a serious conversation, that happens in person. If I absolutely have to use technology, I try to think about how to make sure people don’t misinterpret what I’m saying.

When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

You are spot on that typing at a keyboard creates a disconnect that can increase the potential for comments to come across as critical, harsh, and harmful. Even though you may not know the person on the other end of that comment, seeing hurtful things about yourself online can be stressful. It is hard not to take it personal! The urge to want to reply to every one of those mean comments is usually high because people don’t like feeling wrong or attacked. There is a discomfort — why can’t people be nice?

Do you think a verbal online attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

There are more similarities than differences with online versus in-person verbal attacks, but I think a big difference is usually the relationship you have with the person. Offline, chances are if I have a verbal disagreement and it is with someone I know, we can work it out fairly amicably. If, say, I argued with a stranger I ran into at the park or a restaurant, we’d say what we want and go our separate ways. On the flip side, there’s often a permanence to attacks online. You can go back and re-read the tweet or watch the video — possibly leading someone to ruminate and making it feel a lot worse than in person. This could lead to the loss or distancing of the relationship if it was someone you thought you were close with, and if it was a random stranger you’re tied to that moment by the digital content existing online.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

There are countless examples of the effects of public shaming, and the pile-on someone experiences can have serious ramifications. Take, for instance, Justine Sacco: she was a PR rep who made an awful joke on her semi-public Twitter account, and was subsequently shamed online by the masses, even losing her job. Or Lindsey Stone, who let a friend share a picture of her on Facebook where, again, she thought she was being funny, and she too lost her job over it. Strangers literally created a ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ Facebook group. I remember reading an interview with Justine a few years after her “tweet heard ‘round the world” and she was terrified that if she went on a date and someone Googled her, that was what they’d see. So, you have this professional ramification where people lose their job, but again, that permanence of the internet is the gift that keeps on giving. You aren’t just shamed once, realize the error of your ways, and move on. It lasts. Potential employers Google you. Potential dates Google you. There are serious long-term effects that I think people just don’t consider.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

This is what people typically refer to as the online disinhibition effect — the idea that online we can feel more comfortable saying something compared to offline. There are several theories about what contributes to or causes this to happen, but a few that tend to stand out are that: 1) Online communication can be delayed. In person, I’d see you and say “hi” and you’d say “hi” back. But, if I tweet something at you, you may or may not answer right away. Because a lot of online communication is asynchronous, you can become detached from the situation and come across poorly (whether intentionally or not). 2) There’s also the potential for anonymity online. I can create a throwaway account and say whatever I want on social media, and feel like I myself cannot be shamed in return because no one knows it was me who said it. 3) The last reason I’d offer is the ease of use. There’s some great new research that highlights how the mobility of communication technology (that I can just pull out my phone, reply to a tweet, and go back to what I was doing) can contribute to disinhibition online. At its core, there is a disconnect that happens where I think people not only step aside from themselves but also their audience, which can lead to poor decision-making online.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

  1. Hit pause. You don’t have to answer every message right at that moment. If you give yourself time to walk away, think it over, come back and you STILL want to say what you did in that prior moment, then maybe it is worth saying. More likely, you’ve moved on and won’t say something you may later regret (this is just generally good relational advice whether online or offline).
  2. Keep your audience in mind. Do you have a public account with 500 followers? Or a private account with 50? And even if you do feel certain that your private account is private, don’t forget that people can just screenshot something you posted and share it without your permission. You may not think someone would do that to you, but it has been done before. If you think there’s a risk your audience may not understand what you’re saying, it probably isn’t worth saying online.
  3. The internet is (sort of) forever. I’ve stated it a few times already, but it is worth reminding that communication online has a degree of permanence that communication offline does not. Thanks to technology, you can go look at someone’s tweets from five or 10 years ago.
  4. Model the behavior you want to see yourself online. In a study I co-authored that was published in the journal “Social Media + Society,” we found that when someone was exposed to civil cues online, that behavior was modeled in the posts that followed.
  5. Don’t feed the trolls. When you respond and engage with every mean or potentially mean comment about you online, it gives license and opportunity for those behaviors to repeat. Don’t feed the trolls and don’t read the comments.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

I don’t know that there is much either company could do that they’re not already doing without heavily overstepping and losing users from the sites. But perhaps there is some sort of algorithmic answer here. Who sees what and why and in what order has been shown to influence emotional responses and engagement. I’d love to dig deeper into the background of either site’s interface to see what relationships exist that can help to limit harmful or hurtful comments.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is less quote and more concept. But, Erving Goffman’s discussion of self-presentation in his book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” talks about how we not only give cues about ourselves (so, I tweet about something) but also give off cues, which I have less control over (maybe that tweet happened at 2 a.m., which shifts the context, or I misspelled something). As someone who studies impression management, relationships, and communication online, this has a lot of relevance for me and my work, but resonates as a good daily reminder, too. Be active and deliberate in your communication about who you are. One poorly framed post can come to represent your whole self, which I imagine is the last thing anyone wants.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

This is an easy one. Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamil) has such a positive and empowering social media presence. She is such a good example of someone who encourages a kinder world. I also am a die-hard “The Good Place” fan, so that’s an added bonus!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

My Instagram and Twitter are the same handle: @natpenn

My Instagram is mostly my pets and cooking, but I do discuss my research on Twitter. I also have a website that I keep updated with my work which is: nataliepennington.com