Bringing civility to social media, one tweet at a time

I made some progress last week in my mission to promote respectful discussion online. Here’s how
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jul 06, 2020
A cardinal pays a visit to the author’s backyard. (Steve Paikin)

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It all started with a picture of a cardinal.

Since most of us had been under virtual house arrest for more than three months because of the coronavirus, I started noticing things in my backyard I’d never bothered to see before. One day last week, the most beautiful cardinal obliged by perching on a tree branch and letting me snap a bunch of pictures for about 20 seconds before flying off.

I was so excited by what I’d seen, I shared one of the really good shots on social media. It was of a quality beyond anything I normally take.

“It’s really quite amazing what you can see in your backyard some days,” I tweeted — and then promptly forgot about it. I’m a bit of a Twitter-aholic, having tweeted about 45,000 times since I joined in 2008.

It was meant to be a harmless tweet that might encourage others to do the same or to make some humorous comments. Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a fellow baseball fan, tweeted, “Hey, it’s Stan Musial!” referring to the legendary Hall of Famer from the St. Louis Cardinals. Others, knowing my devotion to the Boston Red Sox (I’ve been a fan of that team since before the Blue Jays were born), saw some cute karma in a cardinal haunting my place. (I had to remind those folks that the Red Sox bested the Cardinals twice in World Series play this century, in 2004 and 2013.) Others sent pictures of blue jays in their backyards and, again, frivolity ensued.

But one person on Twitter was having none of the fun and games. He was angry. Really angry. And he let me have it right between the thumbs as I engaged with others. He blasted me for showing off my “Rosedale backyard.” Then he accused me of being outrageously overpaid, at taxpayers’ expense no less, and wondered how I could justify my offensive tweet about the visiting cardinal.

Well, that was unexpected. But certainly not unprecedented. Ever since the Ontario government required salaries of provincially paid employees earning more than $100,000 annually to be published nearly a quarter century ago, my salary has been made public every year. And I’ve learned how to turn the other cheek and just accept the fact that, regardless of how much I make, some people aren’t going to like it. Comes with the territory.

But, being in journalism, I do have a bit of affection for accuracy. So, at the very least, I wanted to correct his inaccurate assumption that I lived in Rosedale. I don’t. And as to showing off my backyard? Well, look at the shot. Do you see any backyard in that shot? You see a bird and some tree branch. That’s it.

Then I had to grapple with the bigger question: Do I respond to this and, if so, how? I’m acutely aware of the maxim “Don’t feed the trolls.” It’s a bit like wrestling in the mud with a pig.  You both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it. 

Nevertheless, I checked his Twitter profile and discovered that his name was Bryon Leyton and that he was a Toronto “English teacher and literary leader, filmmaker and writer” with a wide variety of interests: news, tech, history, poetry.

I became more curious, since his profile suggested a literate and intelligent man. Then I checked his followers. Only 51. Hmmm … that small a number often suggests someone who’s interested in flame-throwing, not useful exchanges.

So I did what almost everyone on Twitter does: I composed an equally bitchy reply in which I pointed out that I don’t live in Rosedale and questioned what his students would think of their teacher behaving this way.

And then I did something you don’t normally see on Twitter: I didn’t push send.

I have often joked with friends that I see my mission in life as “civilizing Twitter.” I always try (not always successfully) not to add to the toxicity on social media, figuring there’s no shortage of putrefaction, but there is an appalling lack of civility. So, sometimes, particularly when I see people I know tweeting awful things, I either tweet back at them or send them a private email asking whether those comments were really necessary. Did they improve the civility of our world, or did they contribute to a further Trumpification of it? I have no dog in the race when it comes to Democrats or Republicans. But I do when it comes to civility versus a further coarsening of democracy.

I’m not sure what stopped me from pushing send on my tweet to Bryon. But something did. So I erased it and tried something else.

“Bryon,” I started. “I don’t live in Rosedale. Don’t think I know you but if I’ve upset you somehow along the way to make you feel like you need to attack me on Twitter, then I apologize. I just wanted to tweet a pretty picture of a bird. Sorry if it offended you.”

I read it back to myself. Yep. Better. Corrects the Rosedale thing. And, hopefully, contributes to a little more civility.

I pushed send.

Almost instantly, the reactions started coming in. Some were harsh and critical of Bryon’s tweet — I didn’t “like” those ones. But the vast majority noticed and approved of how I took the high road, and offered some unusually nice compliments (so as to avoid sounding self-serving, I won’t replicate them here). Suffice it to say, they confirmed for me that I’d made the right call and that, regardless of how Bryon responded, I could stay true to my mission of contributing civility rather than more bile to social media.

The next day, Bryon responded.

“This is a beautiful pic,” he began, referring to the cardinal. “When I re-read my tweet to you, I realized I’m in a dark place on news my brother, after 1.5 years suffering in hospital, has asked to die.  I felt jealous that you could see beauty & chose to share it, while I cannot. Please forgive me. I’d rather be you.”

Oh, my.

I immediately, upon reading that, tweeted back to Bryon how sorry I was to hear about his brother, told him no forgiveness was necessary, and wished him well dealing with his family’s tragedy.

I didn’t much like where Bryon’s and my interaction on social media started, but I love where it ended. It started with hurt and misunderstanding, but it ended with empathy and warm wishes both ways.

I’m not pretending that, in a sea of toxicity, one set of tweets will do much of anything to clean up the stench that passes for dialogue on Twitter (especially from you-know-who). But, if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then I’m happy to have taken that first step with Bryon. I hope our example, in this one small case, will encourage others to pause and consider whether it’s so important to try to bash someone’s face in on social media, rather than contribute to a more civilized world.

I guess I’m not being totally facetious when I say that is my mission in life. And, in a sea of billions of tweets, I’m going to keep trying to tidy things up just a wee bit.

Care to join me?

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