Online social media sends multiple messages

At one point a few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a friend that I found frustrating and upsetting. In fact, I was so upset by this message that I thought it deserved a somewhat brusque, limited reply.

But just answering with a curt message didn’t seem like enough to me. In an occasional fit of acting like an angsty drama queen, I briefly contemplated responding to this person via Twitter and responding with a message containing a link to my response there.

For my less geeky readers, Twitter is basically a “micro-blogging” service that aims to answer the question “What are you doing?” Since its launch in 2006, however, it has far outgrown its humble roots. Rather, on top of its original (and somewhat narcissistic) purpose of telling everyone all the glorious details of the tedium of one’s daily life, it has evolved into a platform for people to converse with one another and share valuable information.

The nature of Twitter as a social communications platform isn’t what made me contemplate using it to communicate my response to said friend, however. The “feature” that did was in fact perhaps Twitter’s most limiting one: a post to the service, regardless of the source, cannot exceed 140 characters.

In my twisted little mind, I momentarily thought using such a limited medium would be a fantastic way to snub my nose at my friend for the frustrating message. It would be like saying, “not only do I want to write you a curt reply but I’m going to do it in a medium that won’t let me answer in any other way. You know, for emphasis.”

While eventually I came to my senses and realized this would be (a) childish, (b) lame and (c) be significantly weakened in purpose by the fact that said friend would entirely miss the significance of me replying via Twitter, the sheer existence of this idea in my mind has made me wonder: what message, intended or not, does our choice of communication tool send to the people on the receiving end?

In the days of user-generated content, and not long after “you” became Time’s man of the year, we have more different ways to share our feelings and opinions than ever, whether with a specific individual or a broader group.

If I have an issue, I can twitter or blog about it; at the same time, I can set up a public forum to discuss it or write a column in a newspaper drawing attention to the concern. But this is just scratching the surface. I could post a meaningful photo on Flickr, Digg a link, or share a bookmark with a group of friends at Ma.gnolia. And Facebook itself has about 30 different ways to disseminate information to everyone from a single friend to vast quantities of strangers.

The increased choice in communication mechanisms is bound to be a good thing for most people; the number of ways for an individual to get his or her message out to large groups in particular has increased vastly since the advent of the web.

The wealth of ways to spread a message may briefly seem exhilaratingly liberating, but between the power of search engines and the fact that more and more of our interaction is moving online, all public and some private communication is logged and can be linked back to you. As a result, the unconsidered, unintended consequences of choosing a specific medium for a given message could carry a surprising amount of weight.

Granted, for the everyman user of a given service, it’s perhaps not as likely that a little spat with another might-as-well-be-anonymous user will really come back to haunt him or her. But the web has an interesting way of making previously anonymous people overnight “celebrities”—just ask Star Wars Kid.

At the same time, a flippant response to an individual can hurt a person regardless of the medium used—but choosing a public one like a blog or Twitter is only likely to amplify the extent of the offense. Despite what this column may seem like, I am not full of doom and gloom on the matter of these new communication tools. I most certainly do not intend to scare anyone away from using Twitter or anything else; in fact I believe people should do the opposite and actively participate online. Indeed, to some extent this comes down to a topic I wrote about some months ago: the increasing need to actively manage one’s online identity.

At the same time, one hardly needs newfangled online websites to shoot themselves in the foot. An unwise phone call or letter to the editor can be just as, if not more of a disaster. Sometimes it isn’t even up to you: earlier this year I got a scare when the article syndication service the Technique participates in decided to carry a column I wrote under the headline “Holy Bible is a book that makes you dumb.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest, frank and transparent in your conversations. Rather, next time you’re about to hit that “send” button, stop and think if the method you’re about to use is really the right one.