Our daily communication with one another has been radically transformed by technology. In some ways, it has been for the better. Distances that once separated loved ones have been closed due to online communication. Years that once stood between old friends have fallen away with the search of a name on Facebook. There is so much we have gained through our progression with technology.
But there is something to be said for what we have lost, as well.
A backlit screen has replaced face-to-face communication. Conversation is reduced to reading in between the lines of 280-character tweet or second guessing the punctuation (or lack thereof) in a text message. We can spend hours talking to someone online, but when we see them in person, we barely utter a word. It seems that the more we connect virtually, the further we isolate ourselves physically.
This separation plays a large role in how we interact with others. Though the internet has provided a space for young people, especially, to share their thoughts and feelings openly, there is also an invincibility one feels behind the safety of a screen. We see the results of this in trends like subtweeting.
The harm of the subtweet
Though some people have no problem openly confronting others about issues, many people do their best to avoid confrontation (present company included). We do this either by letting things slide and go unaddressed or by dealing with them in a passive aggressive manner.
The world of social media appears to cater to the latter. Because interaction primarily consists of “likes,” “retweets,” and “comments,” subtle confrontation is not only made possible, but made easy. Though these actions may seem inconsequential as most of them involve nothing more than the click of a button, they speak volumes because those buttons are the way in which people communicate across digital platforms.
However, unlike during in-person conversations, there is no opportunity to justify a “like” or explain a “favorite.” All we can do is make assumptions that far too often lead to more harm than good.
While subtweeting stems from the trend that began on Twitter, the term is also used in general to refer to the act of talking negatively about someone on social media without explicitly identifying that person by name.
In other words, subtweeting is the virtual equivalent of talking behind someone’s back. The primary difference, however, is that the condemning remark is not merely whispered in your best friend’s ear. It is being shouted into and perpetually preserved by a world of online followers. For some people, that means sharing it with hundreds of people. For others, it amounts to thousands.
With this in mind, the act takes on a little more gravity than an under-the-breath, backhanded comment. The public platform that social media provides changes the game and can enable social media to be a tool for taking down others.
It’s not just the people we think of as “cyberbullies” wielding this weapon. It’s politicians and celebrities. It’s peers and relatives. It’s our own friends. Looking back through our tweets, maybe it’s us, too. The danger of subtweeting is that it feels innocent in nature. No names are mentioned, so we are able to post it guilt-free, the screen neatly dividing us from the outrage, the pain, the humility of those affected by our words.
Reclaiming our responsibility
Though technology influences our interactions with others, it is nonetheless our human society that creates and controls the online world. Therefore, the popularity of the subtweet is a direct reflection of the culture in which we live. Conflict is aired out only to attract more attention. We prize instant gratification, and so we lack the patience required to come to peaceful resolutions.
This culture has seeped into technology and shaped a new environment, one that is largely populated by a younger crowd. There is more freedom and less accountability here than in any other domain. We are free to say what we want and share how feel.
It is for that very reason that we need to take ownership of our actions again. We need to start asking ourselves if we would say in person what we post online (hint: in the case of subtweeting, the answer is typically no). We need to accept responsibility for the culture we have created.
A healthier approach
We also need to encourage an atmosphere of openness in our relationships with others (outside of the digital world). This is not an invitation to get walked over by every person who has a problem with you. Rather, it is about recognizing the importance of communication in our relationships. If we outrightly deny or condemn someone when they come to us with a concern, we also shut down an opportunity for honest discussion.
On the flipside, if we find ourselves at the other end of subtweeting, the one in which we feel targeted, we have to fight the urge to fire back a response and instead consider what prompted such behavior from that person. Is it because the person was feeling excluded, slighted, or shamed? What can we do to address their feelings without lashing out and rushing to post our own?
There is value to pinpointing our reasons, and those of others, for the frustration or pain we feel. In doing so, we may find that the solution does not come in attacking the person, but in addressing the larger issue at play.
Our words have an impact on others. Once we stop seeing people as usernames on our screens and start seeing faces again, we can come to terms with the weight of our words. We can use them to build our relationships with those around us rather than break them.