Over the last few weeks a few things have unfolded that have provided reminders that, as much as I love all forms of digital communication, sometimes you need to just stop. Step away, and come back later, or pick up the phone, or get on your feet and meet. Here are three checks before you post:

Bright Stop Lights - by Benjamin Ellis


If you are HungryAngryLonely or Tired, step away from the keyboard/keypad and deal with that issue first. This one actually has its origin in addition recovery programs. I’m  not going to comment on the addictive nature of social media, but the idea here is to use HALT as a test before you do something. How are you feeling before you post? You might still go ahead and post, but remember that during heightened arousal (hunger and anger), our executive function that controls self-regulation tends to go out for a picnic, leaving us to do silly things that we later regret. And yes, for the person sniggering at the back, ‘heightened arousal’ does include sexual arousal, so the ‘H’ could be for horny if you are a teenager (or a sexting-politician). Did you really want to send that picture?

We all know that anger causes us to act irationally and lash out. Clearly amplifying that by engaging the power of a global communications platform (be it email, Facebook or Twitter) is unlikely to end well. It seems obvious, but sometimes that anger isn’t apparent until we see the hurt reaction from our unintended victims, and by that point the damage is done, with the evidence there for all to see. And no, deleting the tweets later doesn’t help (hello Kanye West). At best you are going to end up looking a bit silly.

Tiredness and loneliness fall into a different bucket, but are problematic. Loneliness is a shockingly common phenomenon – do a search for current statistics (or go through the UK Office for National Statistics). If affects not just people who live or work alone, but people who physically live and work with others on a daily basis.

Even though it was almost two decades ago, I still remember the first ‘teleworker’ I set up. We were so proud of creating a technical set up that enabled them to overcome the travel restictions that they had, removing the physical distance between them and our main office. Happy days. They resigned a few months later. We had taken them out of an environment where they sat with their friends and interacted on a daily basis, and put them in a box room at home, alone with their keyboard. Loneliness isn’t just about being with or without people, but I will come back to that later.

If we use social media to create a sense of connection and overcome loneliness, that is great. If we use it to re-enforce and reward the feeling of loneliness, that is not so great. Social media augments physical human interaction, but it is a poor substitute for the real thing, so don’t let it be.

If I have to explain the dangers of tiredness to you, you should probably sneak off and take a little nap right now. Everything looks bigger and more scary when we’re tired; the screen, however big or small. has a habit of sucking us in, until we can no longer keep our eyes open. There are remarkably few things that can not be more easily conquered after a good sleep and a hearty breakfast. Close the lid, shut the eyelids.

Count the Strikes

My recollection is that I learnt this when I was working along-side Motorola, many years ago. It was an organisation with all sorts of curious cultural quirks, but there is one particular habit that the group I worked with had, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

I send you an email, you send me an email, I send you an email back, you send me an email back, I send you an email. Now you stop, pick up the phone and call me. Three rapid exchanges and take it off-line. That doesn’t mean aggressively message someone three times, then run away! It means if you find that you are about to rapidly respond three times in a row, it is almost certainly time to go face to face.

If communication has become emotive or emotional in anyway, it is time to pick up the phone, fire up Skype, or (best of all) walk across the hallway and look each other in the eye. Text-based communication (SMS, Twitter, Yammer, email, …) does not contain prosody. Prosody is the intonation (pitch and boundaries), timing and stresses in speech that give us critical cues to about the meaning and intention of what is being said. Without cues beyond the text, interpretation is prone to errors, especially when it is forced to take place rapidly.

Words are a faint brush that paint a shadowy picture. If you don’t believe me, get permission to record a conversation you are involved in, then listen to it and transcribe (word for word, sound for sound) exactly what was said. The conversation in your mind, and the words that went across the air are wildly different. When a conversation is stripped of context and all of the expression that exists outside of the literal words, it is almost meaningless. The power of ambiguity in communication is that it lets us negotiating meaning. The danger of that ambiguity is that we often bring our own meaning, to it, drawn from whatever we are most agitated about at the time. Context is a key part of communication, which is one of the many reasons that communicating at a distance or across cultures can be so fraught. It is also while I like breakfast tweets, they create ambient context.

Email, text, IM and Twitter often promote reactive responses – shoot first, ask questions later. They also delay closure and agreement, because we don’t see the important cues that signal them, like broken eye contact and body posture. Talking to someone face to face, and looking them in the eye, require a degree of bravery. Be courageous, if you can’t say it to their face, you are probably not in the right place to say it digitally either. We have already talked about communicating when angry. If you are messaging rapidly, change communication platform, or slow down the pace. I try not to argue on Twitter, if you ever see that I do, say “@BenjaminEllis Should that be a blog post?” – slow media is that much more civilised.

Real or Showreel

My thanks go to Pete Phillips for making me rethink this one. Social media is “continual partial transparency” – people constantly revealing little snippets of their life. It looks like transparency, but in reality it has much more in common with a show reel. It is purely the edited highlights, even if it does include breakfast tweets.  Don’t compare your people’s social media “highlights reel” against your, unedited real life. It isn’t comparing like for like, and you’ll end up unliking it, unliking them and unliking your own life.

The Showreel Effect of social media makes life look great and exciting, and entices us to put the the very best edited, polished highlights of our life, wherever we can grab them from. It is like photoshop for biographers.

Skipping back to loneliness, and that remote worker I mentioned earlier. One of the most crushing things they experienced was receiving our regular employee newsletter. You know the kind of thing, “shiny, shiny, look how great it is to work here, look how much fun it is.” Now, to be frank, it really wasn’t. The people were lovely, that is for sure, but it was paint-dryingly boring most of the time. Hundreds of people tapping in front of computer terminals and answering phones, repetitively running around procedural hampster wheels. To relieve the boredom I would regularly instigate office chair races, and my more prank-driven colleagues would swap around screens and keyboards when a co-worker went off to get a coffee. Oh the hilarity. Now, strangely, these escapades never seemed to end up in the employee newsletter, although they definitely did attract the attention of HR from time to time.

What has all this got to do with posting updates to social media you ask? In the furtive attempts to create the ultimate social media show reel, be careful not to alienate the people you were trying to engage.

Social Media enables us to get drawn into a game of “my cat’s blacker than your cat” that spreads across the bounds of both time and space.

  • “I am at the airport, about to fly to Manchester.”
  • “_I_ am at the airport, in the BUSINESS lounge, about to board to Paris.”
  • “I’m next to the FIRST class lounge, looking at a glass of champagne and ready for Rio.”

When you post, think “real” rather that “showreel.” Is that update about to declare the relative chromatic characteristics of a proverbial feline companion? You might just want to store it away for a rainy day, in a text file titled “actually-my-life-is-ok-really.doc” which you open whenever you get depressed by someone else’s “Just look how utterly amazing my life / business / book is.” Oh, and that last tweet, that’s the taxi driver who has been waiting for two hours in the freezing rain to collect a passenger. They are about to drink from a can of Rio light juice, as they look at a giant airline poster advertising the first class service they won’t get to use. On social media, anyone can sound like a rock star, that doesn’t make anyone feel like one.

And one last, very dark, point on the Showreel effect. When we can’t find clippings for our own showreel, there is a temptation to pick up other people’s highlights from the cuttings floor. By all means, join in celebrating the success of others, but this is never OK:

 “<insert reference to tragedy/natural disaster/human suffering> – OMG! I was totally at that airport just 36,576 hours ago.”

What kind of idiot would do that? Well, it turns out, almost every Twitter micro-celebrity. Hands up, I have  done it. The Showreel effect is a powerful force, we always want to be in the movie, and we always want a big part. Even worse is tying that to some sort of demand for social capital, for example asking for retweets (hello Kellogg’s, how did that pan out for you?). Do not let the pursuit for attention lead you into co-opting the suffering of others. Do what you can to relieve it instead.

Check First

Before you post, think:

  • H.A.L.T. – How are you? Check your emotional state. Should this wait.
  • Count the strikes – Are you about to fire the third bullet? Stop and switch channel.
  • Real or Showreel – Save it or send it?