Personal responsibility

Missouri made the news in a big way this weekend, and my heart hurts for the Ferguson community.

A young man is dead. This simple fact sparked a chain of events Sunday night that ended in destruction and dissatisfaction. This community could not trust its law enforcement in the wake of the shooting that took Michael Brown’s life. They have a right to their anger, they have a right to ask questions, they have a right to demand answers.

On the other side of the divide, the law enforcement knew their position was precarious. They wanted to make sure they had their ducks in a row before adding to the public record. What they added was sparse, and it in no way fixed the hole created in the Ferguson community. In handling the media for this situation, they followed protocol.It may have been to the letter, but it wasn’t enough for those burning with anger; it only served to deepen the community’s distrust of law enforcement.

A vigil meant to mourn what Brown’s promising future could have been turned chaotic as protest led to riot gear, all amidst looting and vandalism. There were no winners in this. No one is happy with the outcome. A man is dead, and the anger is still there.

To clarify my position as a Missourian trying to make sense of this tragic and toxic situation, I culled this brief summary from two St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles, as well as various tweets, photos and videos being posted throughout the night. I have no desire to declare that I know everything about everything, and I am right and all others are wrong. I did no original reporting, and I can only give links to my sources. I “know” what I have read from sources I consider reputable and trustworthy.

This post is not to demonize one side or the other, but rather to explore how we use social media in this time of strife. This disclaimer leads me to the real motivation behind this post: take responsibility for what you add to the larger conversation happening in the world.

Twitter has created a wonderful opportunity for crowdsourcing and up-to-the-second communication to the world. A recurring criticism from the #Ferguson search feed was the lack of live coverage from the larger networks, and that Twitter was the best way to stay updated. Journalists and concerned citizens alike were tweeting live from Ferguson, which helped to create a picture of what was happening. This wonderful opportunity for a diverse and live conversation, though, has a dangerous counterpart.

As I already stated, I only tried to compile and summarize what I’ve read from credible sources. As can be expected from a controversial topic on the Internet, there is also a lot of misinformation and bias out there. Users can use the impersonality of a Twitter account to state their opinions, as vitriolic as they may be. In the end, we are more likely to have a large collection of angry/annoyed/condescending/ignorant/racist/uncouth messages sent to the world than we are a common discourse over a tragic issue.

What made me really sad, though, was a tweet that warned people to be careful of what they’re tweeting and retweeting.

It came from an MSNBC contributor, which makes sense from a source credibility standpoint. I completely agreed with her point, in fact it matches the theme of this post. However, I was sad that it needed to be said; I saw it as I started following the #Ferguson feed, and I can only wish that more people had taken her advice. Rumors abounded, which only sparked more anger and confusion.

A conversation about Michael Brown and the events of Sunday is bound to occur. Some would argue that it was only the reporting of the riots that guaranteed Michael Brown would not be soon forgotten. Others would argue the looting would cheapen and override the more pressing story. This conversation is important; Twitter has helped to garner attention and information, but it may not be the best place for rational discussion. 140 characters may make a good point, but it likely lacks context.

Worse, Twitter can give one tweet a too large and convoluted context. The #Ferguson search feed can lead interested parties in nine different directions in ten different tweets. The conversation needs to happen, and it’s good that people want to get involved. I only ask that everyone be careful what they put out there. Spend more time listening than talking. Treat everyone with respect. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t judge. It’s hard to do, but I think it’s worth the time to think and listen before acting. Or tweeting.

We should hold ourselves accountable before blaming others for their perceived shortcomings. Don’t reduce your argument in favor of inflammatory opinions tweeted in the heat of the moment. Even now, I worry about what my posting this may add to the issue. Am I actually helping, or am I inadvertently making my point worse by writing about it? All I know is that I couldn’t watch my Twitter feed in turmoil and not consider my observations. Everyone has an opinion, and we all react to those opinions in some fashion. In the end, though, we are only responsible for our own words and our own actions.