Opinions That Matter and Those That Harm

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.

 

11 comments

  1. Social Media tends to be like a big village were everyone thinks to know everyone. Therefore they start to agree or disagree with statuses and comments, attacking or praising certain individuals. But since they don’t know the person they are commenting to, their words are empty. So they shouldn’t count.

  2. Nice post!

    I left social media for the reasons you are mentioning here and among several others as well. With respect to twitter is not intended as a “debate tool” or to express your personal opinions about more complicated topics. Using it for links and express simple stuff, like how you feel, nice things you have read, etc. is OK.

    —-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?—–

    Well, if it isn’t harassment (you have put yourself in the position yourself) then Yes, they can (according to freedom of speech) give their opinions about you, even as a person. I know that sounds harsh, but it is more important what you want to share about yourself and to whom. Another thing is, does it matter what opinions those readers have about you?

    I agree that modern usage of social media as lots of unintended consequences, bullying being one of them. When things are so open as it is, you have your own responsibility to protect YOURSELF. There will always be assholes there and unfortunately this can only be solved on how you interact with them. We have one big case here in Norway now where a 13 year old girl died during Christmas as a result of starvation. When parts of the investigation was revealed it was clear she was a victim of social media harassment from people in here neighborhood. When people heard that she had been a targeted victim in social media, death-threats started to appear on Facebook against these people who harassed here in the first place. So where does it end?

    My only advice would be to be Professional. Use a solid platform to express your thoughts on matter and be very careful on what you share about yourself. Is the information you provide about yourself something that is interesting for the reader or is it more you wanting to share yourself?

    Good luck and I am looking forward to read more of your posts!

    1. We all use social media differently. There’s no “right” and “wrong” way as long as our use doesn’t harm others. People use Twitter a million different ways. Social media is a great tool for social change. It’s far from being just about posting the things we like. I used Twitter to communicate a whole revolution and it was an excellent tool for that purpose.

      I don’t agree with you fully that as long as something isn’t harassment or bullying than it’s free speech and thus it’s their right. A person may be free to smoke a cigarette and harm themselves as long as they do that in their own space. They are not free to harm me with their smoke by invading my space. It’s all about personal space in my opinion. If I open the door of my home to people, I expect them to respect me in my home. I am responsible for protecting myself by not allowing just anyone to enter my home. I am also responsible for making my boundaries within my home very clear. And it is the responsibility of those who enter my home to respect those boundaries. In my home, they are free within those boundaries but not beyond. I may allow my closest friends into my home but that doesn’t mean they are allowed to enter my bedroom or to open my refrigerator. They must ask for permission and either it is given or it is not.

      I consider my blog and my social media platforms my own personal space. I have opened the door to people in certain instances to that space. But I require they respect that that door has been opened. And I frequently explain what my expectations are in terms of that respect. It is my space. I decide how it is used by me and by others. Just because they have entered it does not give them free reign by any means.

      That is what I consider to be common decency. If they believe they have freedoms other than those I accept for myself, they may have the right to practice those freedoms in their own spaces. But they do not have the right to impose their “freedoms” on me. That isn’t freedom. It’s intrusion.

      1. I agree with you what you write, but there is a lot of wishful thinking in considering the social word like a “personal space”. You expose yourself whether you like it or not. Sure you can set up rules and expectations on how people should behave, but that’s the downside with social media in my opinion. It is not set up like your home and people don’t see your online personal space as your home (well, I do so I behave accordingly). It is sad development of some applications where user control is limited. I hope for the future things will approve with both parental control and that people must actually identify themselves when interacting with other users.

        I know we are on the same page on this issue, but as I see it social media is not setup up to protect people from being either bullied or receive critics. To use the analogy you are using, the cigarette ban is still yet to be enforced on the internet. So if you don’t like smoking you just have to stay away.

    2. I’ve never seen that as my only option. Back to smoking, no matter where I am in the world, if someone is imposing their cigarette smoke into my personal space, I will politely ask them to put their cigarette out whether they legally have the right to smoke there or not. The fact that some people still smoke in other people’s personal spaces does not make what they do acceptable and we just have to deal with it and walk away. I refuse to be intimidated by people who either want me to accept their intrusions into my personal spaces by criticizing me as a person or criticizing the choices I have made when I have not opened the door to such criticisms nor had I asked their opinions about me – or to stop using social media. It’s not an either or situation. I will continue to use social media and I will continue to make my boundaries clear. And if someone transgresses my boundaries they will have to be removed. My point is that just because things are the way they are does not mean we walk away or we accept it.

      1. Your own accounts, meaning your personal space is something you control yourself. Like you said, you decide the boundaries and set the rules and decide who can comment, who can read, who can follow you etc. All that is fine, but there are parts of the social media that you can’t control yourself and it’s exactly there where the problem is today with i.e hate pages on FB.

        I am sure you have control over your personal space, but that doesn’t mean (unfortunately) you can control what other people’s opinions about you are or your topics for that matter. Hopefully the new law that EU is about to enforce will help to some degree.

        In the end of the day it is everybody’s responsibility to act accordingly on social media and debate forums

    3. I think we both agree. People will continue to do what people do and have done forever. That doesn’t make it right. And what I’m reading in your words is that you agree. I will not run away, though, because people do what they do. Nor will I hide. Nor will I stop being me. I will just keep being me and I will keep defining my boundaries in my spaces.

      1. That’s what make you a person we need to have more like in the world. It’s like terrorism, if people give in and don’t stand up for themselv, humanity will lose and terror win….

        So continue stand up for yourself and set boundaries!

  3. I follow a lot of people from different backgrounds and cultures.. I follow couple of bloggers, i check four or five of them once a week at least. one is yours. I agree with you in almost everything. But i absolutely nothing in common with couple of them. I don’t agree with most of their ideas. they are completely different than me. but i follow because i like the way they express themselves. I like the way they show how freely they live. All the people i follow all the blogs, essays n books i read made me come up to this conclusion: No one is responsible of others actions.Your words cannot in anyway responsible of my words. And your words shouldn’t make you seem better or worse they are just a presentation of your own life. Each of us have our own journey. Just because you have an urge to put your journey in words doesn’t give anybody right to criticise you personally. Whenever i want to write something as a comment to some picture or writing of a person, i ask myself if i could/ would say that to his or her face.. and whether he or she seems to be interested in my opinion or not?! I found out that reading helps only educated people understand and empathise. So education comes first. But not kind of an education that teaches people a particular way of understanding is the right one. All the world, all the nations and we, need education which helps us understand that they have their own reasons and we have ours. There are different point of views and there will always be. For me this is the essence of being a human. I believe there must be a reason to this diversity. Maybe the wisdom is just realising that there is a reason:) who knows:)

  4. Reading your line about “This is the Nadia Elawady” made me feel pathetic about everyone else. I totally understand what you are talking about, and I definitely hate that! As if you became their highest concern, and biggest threat in their lives, while all what you do is simply writing! Well, let them all eat themselves out. You are totally free to say whatever you feel like saying, as long as it is not pinpointing fingers and telling lies about someone specific. Other than this, never allow yourself to be intimidated. Just as you said it. I totally love your writing style!🙂

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