Sitting here watching the dramatic siege in Sydney’s Martin Place unfold with the rest of Australia and many around the world, it’s impossible to avoid the social media noise.

It’s still humming.

It’s speculative, occasionally hate-filled, intermittently impassioned. If you turn off your devices (and good luck with that), it follows you to the news.

It’s prompted me to reflect a little on why it’s so hard to be silent.

These thoughts aren’t intended to trivialise the siege events (as I type, they’re still playing out). I have the utmost respect for the authorities managing the crisis and the deepest of sympathies for everyone impacted.

They’re my own way of processing what’s going on through a partly professional lens, and I hope they nudge some thinking.

Street art showing man with finger to lipsFlickr: jefaerosol

So why can’t we shut up?

Talkativeness means survival. It’s a coping mechanism for many in life, and for humans as a collective.

We talk to change the subject and avoid the confrontation that reflection might deliver.

It also means identity. We talk to cohere and ascribe meaning to a shared experience.

A recent study even revealed that talking to strangers may well make us happier.

We’ve also done it forever, long before the internet. It’s community in action.

But filling the digital void is a different ballgame. It’s easy – and – for those who require it, promises attention a water cooler never could. The normalisation of user generated culture has embedded a sense of entitlement to have a say. Giving voice is a gift of the ages. But when noise is unchecked, it feeds the disaster-porn machine that traditional media thrives on. We feed it, then we complain about it. The circle of life goes on.

When noise swirls it feeds the disaster-porn machine

Accelerated culture means a millisecond can have a lifetime of impact.

Slow community

I wasn’t silent either. I had fascinating conversations with community managers and social media leads through the day, in private communities.

Some asked for tips on how to address the topic in their own communities (which either had direct connections to the event or were discussing it like everyone else).

Many unpacked the way the Lindt team were dealing with the myriad challenges they face on social media. Others were sharing strategies.

Some just wanted the group hug of knowing others were out there.

We shared some acute examples of posts that were ill-thought, or just plain inappropriate, including a high profile journalist, an editorial staffer from a major student publication and a prominent social media personality, among others.

Importantly, we also talked about the value of silence as a response – and that shutting down comments and commentary is absolutely sometimes the right decision.

Shutting down commentary is absolutely sometimes the right decision

Those group discussions were largely measured, thoughtful and constructive.

They weren’t a hyperactive stream. Call them ‘slow’ community.

Women with hand held to mouth, with lips on hand

Flickr: danielavladimirova

What makes it slow?

  • It’s a carefully constructed community of purpose, with intentional barriers to entry;
  • It’s hand moderated to reasonable standards of what is and isn’t acceptable;
  • Finally, the audience is much narrower – the ‘public’ is finite.

This is the conundrum with the gun-powder publics of the web… and just how infinite they can be.

Private communities in small and large form appear to be making a comeback with the mainstream. Maybe that’s a healthy thing for digital discourse and driving value – business or civic.

Noise can and does become something pretty powerful now and then. Time heals, and it can transform toxicity into remarkable shows of hope and humanity. Like this one.

The social washing machine churns the ‘thing’ around and like-mindedness clusters.

But while that’s happening, maybe we need some ‘slow-community’ to buffer the speed of noise.


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