This week’s letter is a walk through a few things that caught my eye on social media in the past week that I feel capture an important crossroads we all face.
Here’s is the key point up front: The way we seek out information during a personal crisis is a useful starting place for navigating global crises.
It has been a crisis-heavy week/month/year/decade. And we are exposed to all of it all of the time. When everything feels like an emergency, social media doesn’t help. Here is one reason why:
Now, I know that Twitter is just one (giant) segment of the world’s population, but let’s think through it.
Personally, I stick with national/international news outlets to follow stories like the crises in Afghanistan and Haiti, because they require tremendous reporting and context to fully understand. These are driven by access.
For instance, the standout piece of journalism for me last week was a heartbreaking episode of The Daily on the fall of Afghanistan, which was primarily an audio diary recorded over multiple days by a woman in Kabul.
And then there were the opinions pervading every one of my social feeds, whether I sought them out or not, and I suddenly felt under incredible pressure to have an opinion on political decisions that honestly, I hadn’t been following closely enough to be able to comment on.
And so began what could have become a week-long game of political catch up, until one night, when talking to my husband about the news, he commented, “You know you don’t have to have an opinion on everything, right?”
It stopped me in my tracks. So, I don’t need to have an opinion on this, beyond my gut feel, which I don’t plan to proselytize on social media. Got it. I thought to myself.
A few minutes later, back on social media, I was bombarded with link after link on where to donate, how to support refugees, and what I could do for women and girls in the region. (Here’s a compilation, if you’re actually wondering.) Which was all helpful information made incredibly accessible because my social feeds have reached the point that I follow enough people who value compiling this type of information.
But still, the feeling of being overwhelmed lingered, because opinions were still flying and they felt inescapable.
And then it peaked IRL on Friday, when I was sitting on the subway and a woman across from me started staring at me, then back at her phone, then back at me. She proceeded to stand up and and inform me that I look very much like the daughter of the exiled Afghan president and show me the NY Post article she was reading. (For the record, I don’t, nor am I Afghan; I guess it’s hard for people to tell South Asian people apart in masks 😑.)
Which launched her into a conversation on the train with the man next to her about how the US doesn’t help its own people but does help refugees. More opinion.
Underneath it all, though, I understood her.
Where do you go with your feelings about crisis?
Some of us go to Twitter to opinionate. Others of us try to take the best action we can to help. Others of us use the news to bolster our existing opinions about entirely unrelated matters that we don’t feel heard about. And others try to do all of the above all at the same time and then burn out. And so forth.
So let’s unpack one actual way to reframe what to do with the news of a crisis, whether it is close to home or far away.
In an emergency, where do you turn?
Consider this actual definition of emergency:
If you were faced with an emergency in your home or community, where would you turn? I assume to a combination of:
1) professionals - if the action required to survive extends beyond your knowledge or power.
2) reputable sources - if there is information you need to understand.
3) loved ones you trust - for emotional support, or to run your plan for survival by someone you trust and feel shares your values.
4) to expand your network - if you really needed that lawyer, doctor, financial support or otherwise, wouldn’t you do everything you could to find/access them?
When the emergency isn’t in our home or community, but in the headlines, it can be incredibly easy to go straight to opinion-land, because social media is accessible, addictive, fun to use and can make us feel 1) the adrenaline of participation and 2) a sense of control over the fear of missing something important.
But consider the actual definition of opinion:
And in the case of emergencies, uninformed opinions are rarely useful.
So how do you find the people who are useful?
Seeing the world through people
Once I became okay with ignoring most commentary about Afghanistan and moved on with my week, I came across this post by actress Taylour Paige:
I tried to google the original source and all I could find was the same passage quoted in two Christian newsletters, credited to Andy Stanley by way of Beverley Greer: an August 3rd Godstone Baptist Church newsletter titled “Write Your Own Headlines” and also this St. Martin’s Episcopal Church newsletter titled “What’s your headline?”
That said, it is getting widely shared, so let’s consider the sentiment people are responding to: We want to see the world through people, especially our people.
There’s a major caveat here: Seeing the world through your own people can lead to a dangerous filter bubble. But if you know how to expand your network, it can be a huge advantage for increasing your understanding or agency.
Choosing your people
Which brings me to an incredibly bizarre Op-Ed, also on Afghanistan, that gave me pause this week. On Thursday, Thomas Friedman, opinion columnist in NYT, published an Op-Ed that opens like so:
As I watch events in Afghanistan unfold, I find myself trying to ignore all the commentary and longing instead to interview three people: President Lyndon Johnson, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan.
I had to read it three times to confirm that he had indeed written an imaginary conversation with Johnson, Jinping and Shah, but I have to admit that it was a fascinating approach.
It reminded me of the old “hypothetical dinner party” question people used to ask — if you could invite anyone, alive or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
In true Twitter style, some people loved the approach and some thought Friedman and NYT were off the rails:
Content aside, however, I actually think the impulse was on the right track. If our smallest personal crises drive us to call up the people who we think are best informed on an issue, why not use the same approach toward news consumption? It’s what good journalists do, though, they would interview living experts, so take the above example with a grain of salt.
The important thing here is that those people may not be in your feeds yet.
So here are my takeaways from the week once again:
Human beings produce information. If you need help to understand something, find, contact or follow people you wish you could call. You might not always be able to reach them, but you can always learn from what they’ve written or explained.
If your feeds are packed with opinion, ask yourself: would you call those people for their actual perspective or advice? If not, follow sparingly. (Also, tons of people just use news pegs to post content because they want to go viral.)
Who would you actually call to understand something? Is it a well-informed friend? Is it an expert who has written a book you’ve never gotten around to reading? Is it an organization that actually knows how to help?
Call them. Seek them out. Follow them.
I regularly email journalists when I have a question about what they’ve written; or call trusted friends when I really don’t know where to start on an issue; or look up influencer-editors of publications and organizations I admire for sources.
And I’m a big believer in iterating on our newsfeeds over time. If nothing else, this is a good time to implement a small change!
⭐️ If you do reach out to someone you trust by haven’t called in a while, or if you follow someone new after reading this, share in the comments or email me and let me know :)