We have to go back to our beloved ones, to nature, because electronic devices [can] help us to run away from ourselves. We lose ourselves in the Internet…and we have no time to be with ourselves. We do not have the time to take care of our beloved ones and do not allow Mother Earth to heal us. We are running away from self, family and nature.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, 2013
Mindful social media; at first glance, the terms don’t appear to go together. Mindfulness emphasises slowness, deliberation, and unwavering focus on one thing, non-judgment. Social media, emphasises relies on speed, constant connection and relentless sharing. Speaking at Google’s campus in 2013, the world-famous Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh advised that people have developed a strained relationship with technology. But, strange bedfellows as they may at first appear, the mindful use of social media can have immense benefits for your business, your personal life and your professional relationships.
Our society is hyper-connected. The Web, computers and other digital technologies bind our lives tightly and intricately together. Walk along any street or other public space and observe just how many people look down into their hands, their faces aglow with the faint white hue of a digital device gleaming back at them. Instead of feeling more connected with each other, we feel increasingly disconnected. The technologies that we have built to connect us can also estrange us from the things and people that matter to us.
I am not a technophobe. I adore new technology and the immense benefits it has brought to not only my life, but also everyone around me. From encyclopaedias, to news articles to scientific papers, the world’s information is rapidly becoming available to us at the click of a button or a voice command. I would not wish to live without these amazing tools and devices we have created for ourselves.
However, there is a downside to living in our tech-abundant society. Heart breaking stories of cyberbullying abound in the mainstream media while recently diagnosed illnesses arising from the overuse of digital tools and services are becoming all too common in the shape of email apnoea, phantom texting, bad sleeping patterns, Gameboy back, and FOMO to name a just a few. Our ability to concentrate is famously being eroded to the point where some find it difficult to stay focused reading one article for longer than a few minutes. Content on the Web is deliberately broken down into smaller sections to capture the waning attention of a hyper-connected populace.
So if our digital tools encourage flightiness, web content breaks up our attention, and the list of digital ailments and illnesses expands, what can be done?
An emerging field called Mindful Social Media provides people with the emotional and technical tools to live more mindful, healthy and stress-free lives when engaging with social technologies. Being ‘mindful’ of our digital interactions helps people become more aware of the nature of their attention, and their intention when attempting to forge online connections. By engaging with social media mindfully, we can consciously create more fulfilling and profound relationships with other people and also with the technologies we have created. Mindful social media is not something difficult or alien to us. The great animation below from the esteemed economist Jeremy Rifkind highlights that people are naturally soft-wired for empathy and not for aggression and that aggressive behaviour (online or offline) goes against what it means to be human.
The creator of the now famous Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. Put another way, mindfulness means cultivating and maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our environment, physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. Crucially, one of the main premises of mindfulness is the ability to become aware of our emotions as they rise and fall, to create a space between how we would emotionally react to a situation and a healthy, measured response to an emotional stimulus. Such awareness is essential for people especially as social media becomes increasingly important and pervasive in the 21st century.
However, there are also concrete business benefits to the practice of social media mindfulness. One need only look at Facebook’s earnest attempts to integrate compassion and empathy into the architecture of the social network to understand the importance of such thinking to the long-term future of social networking.
Practicing Mindful Social Media can empower people and organisations to create profound relationships, amongst other surprising benefits:
Keen awareness of what motivates positive reactions online
Mindful Social Media develops our listening skills and ability to understand the effect of our words and actions online. We can improve our awareness of the impact our content has on other people. Awareness of the impact of our actions online is also critically important for businesses and brands in the era of relationship marketing. If we become more aware of not only the negative impact of our actions on other people but also what fosters positive online actions and reactions online, then we will be better able to relate to the people we want to connect with and serve.
Improved awareness of one’s own reaction to online communication
As we become more aware of the impact our actions have on others online, practicing Mindful Social Media enables you to develop keen awareness of our own internal reactions to what we experience on these social platforms. How do you feel when you log into Facebook or YouTube? Are you feeling happy? Stressed? Worried? What emotions and feelings are you bringing to the online world from the outside world and how does this affect what you post or choose to focus on? If we develop greater self-awareness and how that translates to the online world, we can then mindfully interact with people and create the best, most fulfilling experiences for people when they interact with us and our organisations online.
Improved capacity to manage conflict online
When we become more aware of our internal state and our actions using principles from Mindful Social Media, we also become better at managing conflict in an online setting. How many times have you seen flame wars erupt online? Or an irate customer posting a disparaging comment about an experience they had with a company? Such interactions generally scale to the point of becoming unconstructive. Now, there are times where disagreement and conflict are healthy and should be expressed, but if we are able to identify and better manage online conflict through greater awareness of ourselves, our actions and, crucially, creating a space between our visceral emotions and the keypad in front of us, we will have more tools at our disposal to help people move from criticism to support, and detractors into advocates.
From both professional and personal perspectives, the practice of Mindful Social Media has the potential to significantly improve our relationships with technology and ourselves. The post-recesssion world will see the onset of radically different ways of creating value in the world which will depend on cultivating and engaging with values that underscore what it means to be human such as trust, empathy and compassion. In order to be successful in this world, being faster and noisier may not necessarily lead to success.