Over the past few weeks especially, I’ve struggled with the intrusiveness that social media can bring. I wrote an Arabic language Facebook status several weeks ago that went viral, bringing in some 15,000 new Arab (mainly Egyptian as far as I can tell) followers in one day. Today, I have more than 22,000 people following me on Facebook. It has completely destabilized the way I use the medium.
I have many more followers on Twitter. My tweets during and after the Egyptian revolution followed by other tweets about Egypt and later about travel have resulted in almost 80,000 people following me on Twitter. But my relationship with Twitter thawed long ago. People I followed on Twitter (mainly Egyptians) had become very “loud” and whiny. “Conversations” seemed more like personal attacks. The small space available for words made me feel points weren’t getting across or were getting across in the wrong “tone”. I now rarely use Twitter. I mainly use it to tell people when I’ve published a new blog post.
But I was enjoying my relationship with Facebook. I was voicing opinions, telling stories and getting mainly what I would call reasonable and balanced comments in return. Mean people were few and far between and easy to deal with. Usually I didn’t have to deal with them at all. Friends or followers would respond on my behalf and the meany would feel outnumbered and eventually go away.
Now things have changed. And my experience of the past few weeks has caused me to think more and more about how some people’s opinions can be beneficial and thought-provoking while other people’s words can be very personal and hurtful. My experience has caused me to wonder whether I really want to know what everyone thinks about a particular topic or if I’d rather personally choose who I want to hear from. It’s also caused me to think more about the consequences of sharing information. If I share relatively personal information or opinions through social media, does that automatically give others the right to voice their opinions about me as a person?
No matter how I think about it, my answer to that last question is a resolute no. Just because I share something with “the world” does not mean that people of the world have the right to interfere, interject or make negative opinionative hurtful comments to me about my words or choices in life. To me, this is a matter of common decency. But we don’t all share the same values of common decency. This is obvious. Also, the anonymity that comes with social media means that people (sometimes even “friends”) will use the medium to say things they might not normally say to people’s faces.
I have been told many times in the past few weeks that if I don’t like what people say to me through social media, then I should stop posting. To me, that sounds more like someone intending to be intimidating: Either you stop doing what you are doing or we will continue to respond in a way you have made clear you do not appreciate. To me, that line of thinking is ugly and I refuse to be intimidated.
To be clear, the kinds of negative statements I receive that I do not appreciate are always related either to my religious choices or to my family situation. I almost completely avoid mentioning my family in my public statuses specifically because I feel that is a part of my life where I am uncompromisingly unwilling for others to intrude. I may be willing to share things about me with the world. The rest of my family is not, especially not with “my” social media world. But the mere omission of information about my family leads some people to assume it means they are unimportant in my life, and they feel free to make opinionative comments about their assumptions. What’s wrong with people?
And then there’s religion. I don’t even have to talk about religion to find that people (of my religion) feel obligated to talk to me about my religious choices. It’s their duty, they believe. They see me, they see certain actions I’ve taken that they disagree with based on their religious understandings, and they feel they must do what needs to be done to physically take me back to their path of righteousness. No matter how many times I tell them that I respect their path of righteousness but it’s not my path of righteousness, they still feel a sense of duty towards me. And those aren’t the worst. The worst are the ones who intrude in the comments and post pictures of me before I took off the hijab (head covering) and after. In other words, a smear campaign. Literally. One guy posted a long series of pictures, which he will have spent a significant amount of time to gather from various places on the Internet, preceding his posts with the comment: “This is the thing that is called Nadia El-Awady.”
All I have to do is to write about the right to choose and to doubt, and people feel it’s their obligation to talk to me about going down the slippery slope to hell. And I’m supposed to be fine with this. I’m supposed to be accepting of it. Just as I have voiced my opinion, I’m told, it is their right to voice their opinion as well.
But it’s not their personal opinions about life generally that they are telling me. It’s their personal opinions of me and how they think I should think and how I should act and how I should believe that they are communicating. And that is what I feel is tremendously offensive and intrusive. Those are the kinds of comments that I feel are unwarranted and lack common decency.
Heck, even what some would deem very positive comments feel unwarranted to me. That one viral Facebook status led to comments from utter strangers telling me that I was their new role model in life. How does someone become a role model from a few words on Facebook? How am I supposed to receive statements like that? What kind of a responsibility does that place on my shoulders? Why should I even feel responsible? What happens when only a few hours later I post another status (and I will) they completely disagree with? Do they not realize that is bound to happen?
The past few weeks have made me realize that I do not want to know everyone’s opinion. I want to be able to use social media the way I enjoy using it. I want to tell stories. I want to think out loud. I’d love to have intelligent, fruitful conversations with strangers and make new friends, which I have been able to do over the years. Admittedly, for every one intrusive righteous one there are at least 1,000 reasonable, intelligent, funny, loving, accepting people for me to learn from and interact with. But when you have 20,000 people following you on Facebook, that means you’ll have something in the range of 20 people who insist on intruding into your person and your personal life with some relative frequency. That’s just too much for someone like me.
I can’t and won’t stop sharing. I refuse to be intimidated. But I really do not want to know just anyone’s opinion about me anymore. I leave that privilege to a very few select and especially close family and friends. And then, only when I open that door to them.
I’ve closed public comments on my Facebook statuses. I’ll tremendously miss some of the great input I’ve received over the years. Fortunately, the ones that matter most continue to send me their input in my inbox, and I thank them both for understanding why they can no longer comment on my statuses publicly but also for continuing to feel connected to me because I also feel connected to them.
Social media can be a wonderful tool for communication. It can also lead to much personal harm. I’m still feeling my way around figuring out how to maintain the benefits while keeping the harm at arm’s length. For me, it’s by continuing to define my boundaries to others and not allowing them to impose their intrusions on me.