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Antisocial Media: Where Did Civility Go In Social Media?

By Lisa White in News on Sep 13, 2014 6:00PM

(Image: Shutterstock)

As most people already know, technology can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the advancements in our everyday lives. Sure, we have most resources at our disposal instantly and can communicate with others across the globe—a great tool to have. But in a world of instant gratification, the need to speak before you think or fully articulate yourself can fall by the wayside, not just personally but for businesses as well.

It is no longer a surprise when a corporate account attempting to be personable posts something socially unacceptable or in poor taste, just like it is no longer a surprise when people publicly threaten others or say somewhat shocking comments in a public forum open for all to see.

Has social media impacted the way we speak to others and, in a way, put a damper on trying to civilly discuss difficult issues in our culture? As someone acutely aware of how people communicate on the Internet, I decided to test out how far being calm and civil would take me when discussing uncomfortable topics with those who might have a view different than my own.

This has been an issue that has been tugging at my brain for years, both as a writer and as an active participant in social media. I genuinely enjoy engaging with people with different opinions or beliefs than I do in an attempt, in a civil manner, to better understand their point of view. I think asking a person who declares something, “why do you think that?” is a totally reasonable thing to do. But, increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to do that online. The lack of tact and reasonable discourse tends to fall to the wayside the moment you try to deeper engage someone regarding their opinion, and many people don’t seem to mind if their personal opinion reflects on more than just themselves.

Such as their employers.

I’ve found this to be generally true in my own online interactions, so I decided to test out my theory on a recent polarizing post we shared, regarding local restaurant Cheesie’s and an offensive tweet posted from their Twitter account (according to them by a “disgruntled ex-employee”) making a joke about the Ray Rice domestic violence incident currently all over the news.

I decided to try and engage commenters on Chicagoist's Facebook post, since that social media network seemed to be the most active with commentary. I asked some of the people leaving comments that they found the tweet amusing or funny why they did, and if they personally knew anyone affected by domestic violence. I kept my questions civil and direct, no different than if I met these people face-to-face and they said the same things, because after all our Facebook page is public and people are allowed to engage with each other. (You can also clearly see on Facebook that I'm the Associate Editor of Chicagoist.) All the quotes that follow are verbatim.


First, the good news. As of post time, two of the people I engaged with actually shared their feelings on the subject in a respectful manner and discussed it with me. One person Ben referenced offensive humor in general and pointed out it was a play on words and just a joke, but agreed with me that it was more the type of humor one would “expect to hear this from an edgy stand-up act” and that “If I were a business, this is a definitely not a topic to touch upon.” Another commenter Michael expanded on his original “I find it funny” post to state that he was “amused by the marketing aspect” and that “it obviously got people’s attention...not in the way they thought or in my opinion hoped.” After sharing why I feel the way I do about the issue, he was polite and agreed that he could see how I would have a different perspective compared to his. Both interactions were polite and thoughtful.

These unfortunately were the exceptions to the rule when I tried to engage readers. A large majority told me I needed to lighten up and was too PC, although I had only asked them to clarify their own opinion or asked them questions to better understand what they were saying.

One commenter Nam told me the situation was “over people like you are getting overly sensitive” and that if “words get you angry then that’s a weakness.” At this point I had not expressed my own opinion to him and only asked him questions. Another commenter Thomas immediately became defensive when I asked him simply why he was not offended by the joke, claiming “you literally can’t say anything without somebody, somewhere thinking you were talking shit about them somehow.” After I responded that I was just civilly trying to discuss the topic with him and that I was a journalist and going to write about it, he promptly deleted the entire conversation.

The most aggressive commenter Alonzo responded immediately by telling me that if I “wish to do further research, I would highly suggest that you ride an elevator with ray rice,” because I “seem like a very inquisitive, hands on type of person.” He went on to state that sometimes a man hitting a woman is actually hilarious and attempted to equate any physical violence that is humorous as being on the same level, that he would never hit a woman (although in the same comment he mentioned “but if shes big as hell with ham fists hitting like a man. well, i might lose my resolve.”) and eventually claimed I was pushing my “opinion around under the guise of professional curiosity,” and was done talking with me. He continued to like multiple other comments, but refused to talk or answer any more of my questions.

After politely asking another commenter Ted who left the basic statement “the tweet is funny” to explain why, he rudely told me to “lighten up, lady,” even though once again I was just asking questions, and went on to talk about offensive comedy, exclaiming “It’s life, yo” before telling me he was done responding and he’d let me have the last word because “you clearly need it more than me.”

Meanwhile I noticed another commenter Hiram wrote, “If people only knew the whole story…” and was also liking other’s comments, including the one from “Ted” who told me to “lighten up.” I engaged with him, and after looking at his Facebook profile realized he actually works for Cheesie’s. Some basic searching online turned up the fact he was Chance Lydick, Cheesie’s operations manager, and the person giving statements to local media about the Twitter incident. Lydick asked me if I contacted Cheesie’s for a statement, and I responded that I was not the author of our original piece, but was working on a follow-up. At that point, I did reach out to Lydick via e-mail (he was not in when I phoned the company). He responded with the following statement:

“At this time I have been advised to no longer discuss the topic and instead focus my efforts in other areas, such as the benefit planning. Thank you for your time.”

Yet Lydick was still commenting and liking posts on our page after he told me he was advised to no longer discuss the topic and he posted the following status update on his public Facebook profile:


Lydick’s friend Chad mentioned a “Lisa” in the third comment on the above status, which I believe was meant to be me since Chad left two comments on our Facebook post and attempted to tag me on one of his comments, which Lydick liked. He linked me to an article from Thought Catalog that was about how Army Rangers have a dark sense of humor where nothing is taboo and gave examples from the author’s “ranger buddies about times they have said something that horrified society’s sheep.” He went on to clarify that “I don’t think she should have been hit and nothing, short of somehow threatening life or limb of RR, would make her deserving of what happened,” yet he went on to add “But she is still with him so I don’t really feel bad for her and will laugh at her as I see fit since she hasn’t changed her situation in anyway.” I did agree that I can see his first point, that some humor is acceptable in certain cultures or groups but might not be acceptable by others (or joked about by a business), and then asked him some more questions regarding his victim blaming comment. He did not respond.

Lydick did originally refer me to the owner of Cheesie’s, Chris Johnston, who agreed Thursday to receive questions from me. I asked him who has access to their Twitter account; why Lydick was commenting on our page and liking comments supporting Cheesie’s without stating he worked there; what Lydick’s original comment on Chicagoist's Facebook post meant; if he worries about how employees interact personally on social media and how it could reflect on his business if someone knew they worked for him. After not hearing back, I followed up again Friday morning, this time asking why Lydick continued to engage with me on social media when he was instructed not to and also asked Johnston about the above status update from Lydick as well.


Johnston finally replied Friday afternoon. He did not want to go into too much detail about the situation, which included not directly answering most of my questions, but he did want to share me with more information about the company and what he and his staff believe. The following includes some of his response:

"This company is built on doing the right thing and treating people with respect while being honest and fun"..."That being said with the foundation of this company being built with the highest of morals I give my staff the ability to be themselves and trust that they will do the right thing."..."With that in mind and the situation that had occurred you have to understand that an attack on our company is an attack on everyone that works here and we all take it very personal."

"Any sane minded person would never condone the abuse of any partner or no partner; any man, woman, child, or even animal so when the backlash had occurred it hit everyone hard and personally. Chance is no different than I or anyone else that when feeling threatened react in a way they see fit. Understand this is our lives and we are looking to do some amazing things with this company”...”I hope that you have a better understanding as to why our team had reacted the way that we have because we honestly believe that we could become one of the best companies to work for within the next 5 years and that is because we are passionate about what we do, love what we do, and love the high morals and respect that we all stand for.”

Johnston went on to speak about the charitable work his company has done, which includes giving back over $10,000 last year in charities and fundraisers working closely with Autism Speaks as well as other anti-violence groups, LGBT friendly charities and many other organizations. “It was a terrible situation but what it has done was given us the ability to partner with a great organization, “Johnston adds.

Cheesie’s will be partnering with Wings, a local non-profit working to end domestic violence and homelessness, who reached out to them Tuesday, on an event to raise funds for the organization. On Sept. 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Cheesie’s will be matching the sales they ring up during those two hours so “every penny that comes into our restaurant at that time will then be put into a check and returned to them.”

It is great that Cheesie’s is working on giving back and making the best of this unfortunate incident. We enjoy their food and I do appreciate the sincere apology and passion Johnston expressed to me. Yet he still has to be accountable for his staff and their actions. I understand why Johnston would not want to go into details about the situation, it is an awful predicament to be in as a business owner, but I still have no answer as to why one of his employees was commenting on our page after he was instructed not to, or why the same employee’s friend was wanting to make sure he was able to discuss the topic at hand with me. I appreciate being passionate about your job, but I don’t think Lydick conducted himself in the best manner on our Facebook page or his public profile. I would have liked a reason why or why not Lydick and his boss thought those actions were appropriate.

So what did I learn from trying to be civil to others when trying to discuss taboo topics? I learned while some people can be genuine and thoughtful while backing up their personal beliefs, many people immediately become aggressive, defensive, make assumptions and eventually refuse to further communicate. I learned that even if people might be representing more than just themselves in a public forum—like being a known representative for a business—some still choose to ignore decorum, even if it goes against the overall tone of the company they represent. Yes, this isn’t new news, people behave badly sometimes and don’t feel the need to self edit when it comes to expressing their opinions on social media or in any comments section. Chicagoist has our fair share of nasty comments making light of pretty serious subjects, the first to come to mind were all the jokes made regarding a women being sexually assaulted on the Brown Line back in June.

Should we all lighten up and learn to take a joke? The answer depends on your opinion. Regardless we should be able to question and converse with other humans about uncomfortable topics. If someone asks you a question about something you say, you should be able to respond without name calling, assuming anything about the other person or utter refusal to discuss your views.

The fact we live in a world full of people with different opinions is what keeps it interesting, and if we lose the ability to have civil discourse with each other, we just grow farther apart and lose the opportunity to understand someone else. One can dream of a world where the comments section is full of stimulating and engaging discussion, but the truth is learning how to respectfully interact with others that may not agree with you isn’t such bad dream to turn into a reality.