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The Depressing Incivility of Social Media

When I see anxiety and stress building in my students, I routinely ask them to disconnect from the Internet and the world of social media. As with other middle schools around the globe, the online environment has not shown itself to be a very positive place for a young person to interact. As teenagers, many are ill equipped to deal with the negativity and cruel trolling that is commonplace. By the end of May, I decided it was time I followed my own advice.

My online spaces of contact developed into depressing corners of my life. My wife would comment on my sour mood after coming out of a research session preparing for a piece, a particular state that would linger for a few hours following. It was clear that my time spent online was not doing wholesome things for my personal life or mental well-being.

This spiral started when I began following and writing about the Altright. This subgroup of trolls has quickly developed a reputation as some of the worst miscreants on the Internet, and it seemed there was no decency they were not willing to dismiss. As I have a small footprint online, I have only garnered sporadic trolling from these activists for some of the things I have said about their movement, but the barrage of attacks made on some have resulted in them leaving Twitter altogether.

Granted, I went looking for these people. Their comments and ideas would come up in my stream because I was actively searching for them. Nor am I some feeble newcomer to the angry, bitter realms of radical politics; I spent a sizable portion of my adult life arguing fervently over the matters of the day. Nonetheless, the sheer dreadfulness of this new breed of Internet comments shocked me, and only increased my depression and sorrow.

Even places like Facebook, a social media platform generally made up of people I know personally and not trolling sock-puppets, was increasingly a place of frustration, Instagram is a place of frustration as well, with Instagram follower count which is something that you see very often in teenagers, it can take over their heads. In the last two months, the tragedy of Orlando and the EU Referendum in Britain occurred. In both cases, I watched as friends and comrades expressed their sadness, frustration, confusion or elation as these events unfolded. In the case of Orlando, many simply wanted to frame the tragedy in political terms that were beneficial to their ideology and could be used as a bludgeoning tool against those in opposition. Mind you, these are friends, family and co-workers, so I was unwilling to question their framing of this horrendous loss of death, but social media looked to be a place where they could simplify the situation to meet the demands of their political persuasion. Liked-minded individuals would reinforce their interpretation; those who disagreed likely stayed away and shook their heads. I saw some even argue that the media was making a bigger deal out of the attack than was warranted, seeing that group X experienced tragedy Y elsewhere in land Z. I found it terribly sad that many felt the need to “own” the Orlando tragedy rather than mourn those murdered that day and have a discussion about the various causes for their deaths. Perhaps it was simply too soon for such a hyper-charged conversation to occur; yet social media wasn’t making a solution any more likely.

I have loved the United Kingdom since my early teens, and was fortunate enough to live and study there in my 20s: first, as an exchange student at the University of Cambridge in 2003 and then at the University of Edinburgh as a graduate student. I had a keen interest in international politics and focused my studies on global integration and the European Union. Many of my fellow classmates work, in some capacity, within the EU. Their entire lives and careers had been built on playing a part in this larger European economic and political project, and to our surprise, the people of Britain narrowly voted to leave said institution. Unsurprisingly, they were angry at their country’s course of action, with some lashing out at the “leave” voters. I watched as more than one individual who should know better, framed those in favor of leaving the EU as bigoted, idiotic monsters that wanted to create a fascist dictatorship and oppress people of color. Surely, those individuals exist, but to paint 52% of their countrymen in such a way seemed drab and unconcerned with the reasons many wanted to part from the EU.

Alan Johnson, a comrade of mine who edits the excellent Fathom Journal, was a prominent left-wing activist in favor of leaving the EU. In the aftermath of the vote, the level of hate he received via his Facebook page was staggering. He went about un-friending slews of individuals that had been, up to that point, friends and allies.

Actual face-to-face conversations about these topics never devolved into the ad hominine I witnessed online. Even after a few glasses of wine, a willingness to see the other side’s points of validity was practiced. Some of these people were formally educated while others had not finished high school; there wasn’t a difference in the civility employed by any one class of individual. However, the conversation and experience looked very different than that interactions I was witnessing on social media.

In contrast with the negative and depressing environment I had cultivated on social-media, my personal life has been quite rewarding and pleasant. I am off for a month and enjoying it in beautiful Sonoma County with my daughter and wife. We spend our days swimming, hiking to the beach and visiting friends and family. I found the joys of Fallout 4 and the deep cuts from Bella Lugosi. There is stability in my work life and enough money to support a family; I have few things to complain about in my personal life. Spending less time on social media seemed a rather obvious solution to my problems.

I would never give up these platforms altogether. Connecting with friends and allies (and even opponents) has produced worthwhile interactions that exist thanks to these social media websites. I also understand that simply because things are going well in my life doesn’t mean that that the world’s problems do not exist. For some, social media may be the only place they can lash out at a society that has not addressed their concerns and problems. I will let those individuals decide how to best present their ideas to the larger world and affect change. However, finding a way to interact with these issues without it taking a toll on my personal life is where I need to put consideration.

(Image: Beautiful San Francisco at mid-day)


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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41 thoughts on “The Depressing Incivility of Social Media

  1. The internet these days is full of “brilliant takedown” clickbait. My conclusion is that human beings love a good insult if its aimed toward the right person. But eating that diet has consequences, just like eating every meal at McDonald’s would. You can make a better online presence for yourself only if you have the ability to quash (delete and/or ban) undesirable behavior, and you articulate and enforce desirable behavior.

    So contempt attracts attention and status among one’s in-group. This is a major reason for it. There are also territorial concerns.

    There are no borders on the internet. This is both its strength, and a problem. If someone is intruding in a conversation, there’s no way to stop that. It’s often hard to tell if you are intruding on a conversation, everything is nominally public, after all. Many people have taken the solution of being really mean to an intruder and hoping to make them go away.

    This suggests that giving people some territory – let them delete comments and ban users – might help. Google Plus does this, I’m not so sure about Facebook, I think it does to some extent. I think Twitter is really weak in this area, and suffers as a result. Of course, the whole point of Twitter is for users to try to be as visible as possible. So people end up fighting for territory, and toxic incivility is a weapon in that battle.

    I like arguments – I don’t mind being challenged – so I allow them on my Google+ threads. I don’t allow contempt – or insults. Generally I delete comments, often to only repeat them and say why they crossed the line. There aren’t a lot of polite derails, so it hasn’t been an issue. I spend very little time on Facebook, so I don’t know if this is possible there.

    It must be said, this doesn’t scale. I learned this method from Coates, but it got to be too much for him as he became too famous.

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    • “If someone is intruding in a conversation, there’s no way to stop that.”
      hellban. Next Question?

      ” Of course, the whole point of Twitter is for users to try to be as visible as possible. ”
      no, the whole point is its insecurity. Just like Facebook. You want to know what folks know about you? Try everything you post.

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    • You can delete comments on Facebook. In fact, I’ve done it.

      (After which I explained to the person why I did it. They were my friend. But I have other friends who would have been offended. So I play peacemaker.)

      Anyway, I’ve never had a dumb flamefest on my Facebook wall. I’ve come close, but I do not accept that shit. All my Facebook friends are friends (to some degree). This is “my house.” Treat each other with respect.

      That said, if someone is a complete shitpuppy always starting crap, then I unfriend them. I mark my posts “friends only,” cuz Twitter-style free-for-alls are garbage. Easy peasy.

      I stopped using Twitter. It doesn’t work.

      I use Tumblr. I block the assholes. Mostly my “scene” there is fine.

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      • The reality is, I have never had any kind of flamefest on Facebook either. In fact, it is not much like a conversation at all. Maybe that is the problem with how I and the people who I am friended with have used it. It comes across as more signaling to others where one stands on an issue without much elaboration.

        Because I have a set of people I follow on Twitter that I do not personally know in real life, I feel I can’t do away with the platform. Even though it has become a cesspit of sorts (or at least where I was dipping my feet).

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  2. Pingback: On Social Media, GhostBusters and Antisemitism of the “Alt” Right and Left | in hope and darkness

  3. When you interact primarily face-to-face, there are a lot of costs to incivility and even costs to having opinions that are ugly opinions. There’s a lot of tone-policing done merely by sitting in a room together.

    When you think “would I rather tell this joke or would I rather nod sympathetically to my buddy”, there are intangible benefits to sympathetically nodding… he nods back, other folks in the room nod back, bonds are strengthened by little more than everyone taking 2 seconds to nod rhythmically together. You can feel the bonds strengthening, almost.

    Online… Would I rather tell this joke or would I rather click the thumbs-up button?

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  4. I think there are a few things going on that the Internet amplifies.

    1. The broad consensus of the few decades following WWII was probably an exception rather than the rule and possibly existed because everyone remembered the traumas of WWI, the Great Depression/Dark Days of the 1930s, and WWII. The period between 1914-1945 probably saw a great amount of death and destruction than previous human history combined. But there were always people who were against the consensus, they mainly existed on the right and that far-right worked slowly to take over the Republican Party and win back from the Eisenhower moderate wing. That wing is still firmly in control and is now firmly ideological. We might be watching a return to the norm of ultra-partisanship.

    2. Humans are social creatures and we seem to form groups and communities based on like-minded traits and IIRC there are studies that show partisanship increases in areas that are too politically like minded whether it is a super-red congressional district in Alabama or Berkeley, CA. So people create communities on the Internet that are generally made of like-minded people with some trolls excluded. I get just as annoyed with “totally destroyed” as much as Doctor Jay but there are really some internet communities that go too far into the Internet weeds. SSC attracts a lot of alt-right types or libertarians weenies/internet tough guys who let their minds wander too far and think that euthanasia is a good solution to income inequality.

    3. I think people are generally bad at rhetoric and arguing. Preaching to the choir is easy and can be done so in ways that look like good rhetoric (“Why Brexit was wrong in 5 graphs”) but mainly work to the biases and priors of the base readership. A few months ago, there was a column in semi-defense of Trump supporters which basically said too many wonks/pundits don’t understand emotions and have trained themselves to drown out emotion. So even if free trade as a benefit, it still feels like a slam to lose your factory job and only have low-wage service jobs as a replacement.

    4. No one has any answers anymore and no one is willing to admit “nothing can be done.”

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    • No one has any answers anymore???
      God, you are such the pessimist.
      I’ll tell you what the answer is. Kill 75% of humanity.
      It’s not my answer, mind. But people do got it, and it’s where we’re headed.

      Writing from a special place in hell,
      Kimmi

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    • “4. No one has any answers anymore and no one is willing to admit “nothing can be done.”

      This is where I end up scratching my head when it comes to giving advice to my students. If I know they are getting more beat down and stressed by social media, and we believe it is as good as it gets, I feel like I have little in the way of advice that doesn’t sound like a sex-ed teacher preaching abstinence.

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        • Kim: “You could always say “find better friends”

          I don’t think those words are going to work with middle schoolers, as their pool of people around them is somewhat limited due to being forced to share halls with a certain set.

          But I am less concerned with their actually friends but rather the types of noise and behavior they see via social media that then has an emotional impact on them.

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    • I read a fair amount of 19th century journalism in my baseball research. I mostly skip over the non-baseball (or at least sports) stuff, but some filters through. It varied, but some papers were complete snake pits: a nasty combination of click-bait sensationalism and political screeds. Some of the 18th century journalism I have seen it right down there, too. So yeah, what I grew up with is a historical anomaly.

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      • Newspapers in the 18th and 19th century were usually very strongly associated with particular political parties. You would read a newspaper if you were party faithful.

        IDK when this changed

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        • I think it was part of the early-mid 20th century professionalization of journalism, with the journalist as, ideally, the neutral observer and reporter. The partisan stuff moved to the editorial pages, where it is easily ignored. I suspect that in smaller towns there was also consolidation of local papers, so that the rural county seat no longer had multiple papers to choose from. In larger cities you ended up with the market divided along socio-economic lines, with the “quality” paper and the sensationalist tabloids. This correlates with political divisions, but only roughly. Someone in the “quality” market might be either a Republican or a Democrat, and is going to take the “quality” paper regardless. But I’m just pulling this out of my butt. Don’t take this as I actually know what I am talking about.

          On a related note, I am currently reading a biography of Wilbur Storey. He was a journalist in what we now consider the midwest but which they considered the west, for about fifty years starting in the late 1830s, when the area was not too far removed from being howling wilderness beating off Indians. He founded, among others, the Detroit Free Press. He later moved to Chicago and founded the Chicago Times, which was the leading Chicago paper for years, ahead of the Tribune. He was quite the guy: a Copperhead adamantly opposed to abolition. He was not shy about his politics. He also was an early adopter of sex-and-axe-murder journalism. It is quite a read.

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          • It seems about right but the professionalization of journalism was a long and weird process. I think that the newspaper grew less partisan much earlier than they grew professional in terms of how journalists were trained. Most reporters learned how to report on the beat rather than by going to journalism school at college well into the time early Baby Boomers began approaching adulthood. Only the highest end of the journalist profession, the foreign and special correspondents, were seen as needing to have a college education.

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  5. Part of what we try to do with comment moderation is to capture some of that face-to-face dynamic. In my mind, the ideal of comments exchanged here would be like those of friends and friendly acquaintances exchanging comments while sharing a drink at someone’s house. Before or after dinner, your pick. Now, often it’s more like the beer-fueled undergraduate bull session, but if it’s not quite the Algonquin Round Table, it’s also many, many steps above a YouTube comments thread.

    Here, it takes a fair amount of effort by multiple editors, supported by our authors who tend to set a high tone in their writing which sparks the discussions. Facebook has a lot less of that sort of comment moderation going on, and a lot of people whose “writing” consists of either reposting memes or offering whatever original writing they do at a level of sophistication below what we look for in posts here. That’s not to say their sentiments deserve to be ignored, but it is to say that our authors work hard to express themselves with a high level of skill and I think our commenters respond to that. Facebook just doesn’t have that, in part because that’s not what it’s intended to be.

    And then there’s Twitter. Which I admit I’ve been having a fair amount of fun with in the past several weeks, but man oh man is the level of discourse there a big step down from what we cultivate here. I’ve no idea how anyone could even try to curate that; it’d be like sending one pearl-clutching third-grade teacher out to a Trump rally and telling both the protestors and the ralliers alike to mind their language and use their inside voices. Good luck with that.

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    • Yeah it’s a conversation here, at Facebook it’s a bunch of people wearing barrels standing on soapboxes bawling slogans at the indifferent hordes and twitter… ugh… I struggle to find a metaphor or analogy adequately insipid to describe the discourse on twitter.

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  6. In Larry Niven’s known space novels there is a park on Earth with no rules, but there are watchers who will intervene in the event of behavior that is violent toward an unwilling participant. Twitter purports to have such a thing, but, given the labor intensity of the effort, it’s effectiveness is unlikely. It’s really up to the individual Twitterer to police his/her own account. Don’t like what someone is writing to you? Block the account.

    I was talking to a friend over drinks last night about Facebook, and he let me know he was unfriended by a man who disagreed with his (very liberal) politics. That sort of thing is beyond me. Is this what we’ve become? Are we only able to talk to people who agree with us? How dull.

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    • Why do you go to twitter/facebook?

      If it’s to relax (or some other pleasure variant), why wouldn’t you unfriend someone who you disagreed with?

      If you want to keep up with your best friend’s lunch pictures, updates on the nieces and nephews (Wally came in 3rd at the state fair’s goat rodeo!), and keeping in touch with people from high school… if Uncle Fred’s constant posting of BernieBro Propaganda causes you distress, unfriend Uncle Fred.

      Get your lunch pictures and your updates and keep in touch and it’s pleasant again.

      Now, I don’t understand why someone might come *HERE* and argue “TAKE SO AND SO OFF OF THE MASTHEAD BECAUSE THEIR VIEWS ARE OFFENSIVE TO ME!!!!”… but this is not facebook or twitter.

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      • I don’t find political discourse to be unpleasant. In fact, I enjoy it. Disagree with me all you want, and I’ll shake my head at your posts about waste, fraud, and abuse. Why trash something nice over that crap?

        Is FB the best place for political discussion? Most likely not, but it’s what we have. My friend does not flaunt his politics there, but he and the guy who unfriended him, would go at it, generally civilly, when either would post something about politics. I’m just saying living in the echo chamber that modern America demands can be a pretty boring place.

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    • he was unfriended by a man who disagreed with his (very liberal) politics.

      Hmm… specifically because the man disagreed with his politics, or because the man didn’t want to hear about his politics all the time in his news feed?

      Personally, my FB friends who make a habit of posting political stuff are very rarely looking for dialogue.

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        • Facebook does have features that can account for this… you can “Unfollow” people which means you remain friends with all the usual privileges that entails but their posts won’t show up in your feed. Basically, you have to go looking for them but if you want to, you can find them and all their stuff as you always have.

          “I should see what Joe’s up to. Oh… still on the Trump bandwagon. Ugh. I’ll check back in after the election. Maybe I’ll send him a message about last night’s game.”

          I very very rarely post anything political to Facebook. And I don’t mind when others do. I do mind when what they post is banal (Hi, Upworthy!) or so obviously untrue as to be worse than advertisements.

          I don’t have alot of friends on Facebook. For work purposes, I have to control the flow of information I put out there. I could imagine unfriending someone I wasn’t really friends with who just posts a bunch of annoying political claptrap… but that person wasn’t even a real friend to begin with. I’d never imagine unfriending a real friend… on FB/social media or in real life… just because I disagree with them. I mean, if they held positions which I found to be so beyond the pale as to genuinely color my judgement of them and impact my ability to interact with them (e.g., adopting legit neo-Nazi beliefs), yea, sure… I could see myself doing that. But I have plenty of friends — good, decent people who I care for deeply and who reciprocate that care — who are on the other side of the aisle from me and who even sometimes hold beliefs I find mildly objectionable (which I think is different than being merely disagreeable).

          So, yea, my buddy Munch who is a pretty firm conservative will sometimes say something in real life (he’s not active on social media very much) that will make me say, “What? Really? You think that?” And we’ll talk it out. And often we realize we’re pursuing the same goals (promoting the sort of world we want our children to grow up in), we just disagree on what that sort of world exactly is or — more likely — how to get there. So we talk. We may or may not come to agreement. But we talk. Then we go back to making dick jokes at one another, send each other holiday cards with our dumb looking kids on them, and make plans to get together for a drink that won’t happen again for far too long.

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          • Sure, I use unfollow myself when the situation demands (actually I use it more for over-sharers than for political ideologues). I’m just saying that pronouncing the judgment of “close-minded” on the man in Slade’s story may not be justified, at least not without more information.

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      • Politics is not a constant in his feed. He’s an incredibly gregarious guy, and most of his posts are about his family.

        As for the lack of dialogue, I assume that going in. I still find the back and forth enjoyable.

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  7. Social media is hell. I bailed from it years ago when I realized all my “friends” were posting crap about their kids, vacations, political stuff I had no interested in.

    “X is enjoying a coke and a fries at McDonalds”. My thought. Who the F cares?

    The only reason I log in now or pay any attention to it is for my jujitsu class updates (class or not). Otherwise, Zuckerbut’s creation can burn in hell.

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  8. I find modern social media mystifying. I don’t see the point. Facebook is good for tracking down old college friends, but honestly, there is a reason we lost track in the first place. This is snark. It is realism. Our lives went in different directions once we were no longer spending endless hours together. If one of them moved close to me we might well reconnect, but then we wouldn’t need Facebook.

    What I see in practice is a combination of political bloviating and trivia of daily life. I am OK with political discussions, but the Facebook format is absolutely terribly designed for it. As for trivia of daily life, I can’t imagine writing that stuff about my life. My eyes glaze over at the mere thought. We have a traditional format for this sort of material: the annual Christmas letter. Distill the year down to two or three pages and I will dutifully read it.

    What really mystifies me is that there are other electronic formats far better suited. Between email, email list serves, message boards, blogs, and hell, usenet for all its faults, what exactly is it that Facebook does better? The only answer I have is that of reconnecting with people you have lost touch with. Then exchange emails.

    Twitter? It was obvious to me the first time I read about this new platform that it was a terrible idea. 140 characters is not a format for reasoned discourse.

    It is obvious that people are getting something from these that I am not, or they wouldn’t be as popular as they are. But when I see people complaining about how much these platforms suck, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

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    • Facebook is pretty good for finding interesting things to do in your free time or for organizing events and inviting people to it. You don’t have to make many different phone calls and try to work something out.

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  9. This might seem trivial, but I have found the easiest way to keep myself on an even keel with social media is to remember that I am every bit as allowed to use the web for being kind to myself as for educating myself. [It also helps that I only pay attention to people who I care about in real life, whether or not I’ve ever met them there, and unsubscribe from any non-personal-relationship-related pages / groups / etc that I end up finding a net negative – but I’ve been doing that since the 90s so I forget that it’s even part of what I do.]

    So, yeah, it’s important to me to stay informed about what awful parts of the news are affecting my loved ones around the world and how (and to remember that if they are posting political angles on tragedies, they, like me, MAY be doing so out of the personal relationship they have to that angle, out of their own suffering). I don’t use social media for sharing my own stuff (or reposting) even a 100th as much as I do for listening. And often the things I need to most hear about the world are negative things, especially in the last couple of years. (Cannot emphasize that especially enough – 5 years ago I had the same geographic mix of friends and the world was way less going to hell in a handbasket. It really is a rough time.)

    But it’s also important to remember that it’s not wrong to go look at cute overload or goodreads recommendations (or whatever other website that gives me the warm fuzzies) as a type of tonic. By balancing things more in this direction *while* I am using social media, I am more able to be my best engaged self outside of social media, and more able to keep an even keel generally.

    My students are college kids, not middle schoolers, and most of them are not white and/or not American, so I’m really careful not to come off maternal when I talk to them about this stuff. But sometimes I do, respectfully, point this same thing out to them (usually when they’re expressing frustration with themselves from not being able to look away from stuff that bring up their own personal trauma and sense of helplessness). It seems to help? I dunno, it’s hard not to come off as “older white person who is telling you how to deal with crap she doesn’t have to deal with” but it seems to be worth the effort if I manage to do it from a personal / experiential perspective and not a bossy older sister one. I see students going from near tears to seeking out and sharing things (funny-and-unrelated-and-not-caustic things) that make other people around the office feel better too…

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  10. Technology permits us to amplify our inclinations, for good or for ill; including the clipping at high levels.

    Generally, I find taking in the natural form to provide more nourishment.

    Frankly, with all the crap going on on my block, were I to even have space within me to grow deeply concerned about Orlando, Brexit, or any other perceived mass tragedies which I have no direct role in would be a grand conceit, more than anything else.
    When I get all Life’s problems solved on this side of the screen, then I can start concerning myself with what’s happening on that side over there.
    Until then, it’s just noise.
    Noise with a vary degree of interest, granted; but noise nonetheless.

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