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How do you solve a problem like social media?

I wasn't too sure where I was going with this post when I started, it's a bit longer than I expected, but here it is. I hope you enjoy my thoughts and musings....

Do you remember a time before the internet? People kept and rode horses, booked the farrier, vet and lessons by picking up the phone. We entered events by post, when you joined the British Horse Society Horse Trials Group you were sent a pack containing a pad of entry forms and a sheet of ballot stickers…. actual sticky paper stickers that you stuck on your entry form!

In 1997 I went to Hartpury College and had a mobile phone that was nicknamed the ‘lorry phone’. I was lucky enough to be able to take the lorry and my horse to college with me, and so the lorry phone came too. It spent most of its time switched off and in my sock drawer, only to come out and be turned on when I was in the lorry so that I could phone for help if required; that was it, an emergency phone only. I did not even play the worm game (if you know – you know!).

In 2006 I took a break from horses and landed myself an office job, in the marketing department at Joules… if I’m honest, a fish out of water doesn’t even start to explain how I felt… I’d only ever been surrounded by horses and worked with horses. Phoning people up to book things and posting entries by royal mail. I had never even sent an email…..

And here we are, a decade or so later and as I sit here, I am typing this at the same time as holding a WhatsApp conversation with two different groups, several messenger chat heads are open and Facebook notifications ping away like a game of table tennis. My 10yr old son is watching Mario bloopers on his phone whilst playing Minecraft on his Kindle (it is Sunday morning… so electronic device rules are relaxed…. Oh, hang on, I’m really bad at upholding device rules so who am I kidding?😂)

Anyway – social media, it is a monster isn’t it? Well, back in the early 2000’s I was running a competition yard, I was just about keeping my head above water, I had horses in for training and competing and people booked lessons, arena hire, pony clubs booked me for rallies and camps and we sold horses via the classified pages of the Horse and Hound magazine. Clients found my details through word of mouth and I advertised in local magazines, tack shops, feed shops, my telephone number was on the side of my lorry and I talked to people at shows and out hunting. I even had a banner that I displayed at local events… the hunting ‘jungle drum’ was possibly the most effective advertising outlet, even though I did not actually go out that much. People talked to each other and recommendations led to phone calls and sometimes work.

I don’t do anywhere nearly as much of that now – I just hit Facebook… so, if we think about it, Facebook is just a bigger, louder version of word of mouth isn’t it? Maybe? maybe not..? but even so, social media is here to stay and here I am now, writing a blog post to share on social media. I hope you are enjoying it… if you have got this far and are still reading, then I guess that’s a good sign!

Back to my original question, “How do you solve a problem like social media?”. Well, I suppose we have to ask..... is it actually a problem? Does it need solving? Yes, it can, and does, cause problems… but isn’t that the people behind it causing the problem, not social media itself? Social media is the stage, people are the players, as Shakspeare wrote:

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,

Unfortunately humans can be nasty horrible things, social media has the potential to make voices bigger and louder, but also massively increases the number of human voices attempting to be heard. We need to choose which voices to listen to.

If you are organising a party you decide on number of people, suitable venue, drinks and food to fit your budget. You also know what sort of party you want to have, a small number of people for a dinner party where time and effort will go into engaging and stimulating conversation. You will select these people carefully and hopefully will have lovely life-affirming conversations, there may be lively debate, but hopefully you won't feel threatened or uncomfortable, and if conversation starts heading that way then the other guests should pick up on the non-verbal communication and steer the conversation accordingly. You will probably spend plenty of time and money on deciding the menu for the evening. But will hopefully remember the emotional connection and conversation for much longer than you will the menu. You may be a particularly astute host and invite a carefully curated mix of people to invoke enjoyable debate. You may decide you just want a relaxed and easy evening and invite the right people accordingly. You are in control; it is your evening by design.

Alternatively, you may decide on a big party, lots of people, plenty of drinks and nibbles. Are you expecting in-depth stimulating conversation? Probably not, you will skip from one group to the next and have a lovely evening. There may be new friendships formed between other guests and there will be lots of conversations going on that you will have no knowledge of. Hopefully in the days after the party you will receive lots of lovely messages from friends saying “how wonderful the occasion was” and “how much they enjoyed themselves”, you may even think to yourself “oh gosh, I didn’t get to have a chat with them” or possibly “….I don’t think I even saw them there!”. It does not matter, because that was the sort of party you created, your expectations were met.

So, WE decide what sort of party we want, and we curate the guest list to suit, we have the evening we would like to have, we are in control. Social media is where we lose control of who is invited.. social media is the house party your teenager organised and they lost control, social media is a global house party. But no-one can stop this one, this house party is never going to end… so how do we escape? Well, we can leave any time we want.. it’s ok, no one will notice. BUT… now we have to deal with FOMO….. Fear Of Missing Out… well, back to the top of the page guys… we can manage to do the things we want using old fashioned methods, telephone calls, royal mail.. but hang on, we don’t want to cut our nose off to spite our faces..... do we?

Social media can be helpful, we can use it to find information, people, book things, ask questions find stuff out. And in fact, an awful lot of people and events rely on social media to let you know what they are doing. You can buy stuff, sell stuff, engage with hundreds, thousands of people; it is a dilemma isn’t it? It seems we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it..

How about we try to add a little control to social media? Don’t forget this house party is out of control, we are never going to control the party, BUT we can try to control how we react to it. So, if we now think about how we can control our reaction to social media, all of a sudden we are in control. We can post what we want to post, but we can’t control how people will react to it. We can choose how we react to posts, and even if we want to react.

Think about the people at the party… did you invite them? Do you know them? How did you meet them? Was it at a dinner party where you had the opportunity to get to know them properly and maybe even had a follow up coffee and cemented that friendship with a like-minded person? Or was it a brief, barely heard over the music, conversation at the house party with someone who you can’t quite remember what it was they said, let alone getting round to their thoughts and opinions?

In the Sound of Music, Maria was a problem in the convent, who was she a problem to though? She struggled to follow the rules and flow of life as a nun; she wasn’t a problem to herself. Her actions became a problem to the other nuns. She needed to be set free to live her life in an environment that suited her. Maria was far from a problem; she was the saviour of the Von Trapp family in the end. My memory of the details of that story are sketchy, but surrounded by people who reacted differently to her actions, and she was no longer a problem but a saviour.

Social Media is not a problem, it is the people using social media who can cause problems. You can control how you use and react to social media. Our relationship with social media is complex, people are bullied on-line, this is not right. People can get themselves into an emotional mess looking for validation from others or making comparisons between themselves and the false truth that people portray online. We all do it, again, there is nothing wrong with that in itself. It is natural human behaviour to post pictures of the red rosettes and even the massive fails (which ironically often attract the biggest reaction) but we rarely post the average moments, the ‘also-ran’ moments, how often do you see posts saying “woo-hoo… I came 11th today🥳 !!”?

The thing we need to do is keep it in perspective, my children are currently aged 10 and 13 and I am frightened to death about what they will see and do online, but I can’t control that. What I can do is try to equip them with the tools to be robust and to be able to forge a path through human nature that helps them determine what and how they react to people through social media.

As an equestrian coach I see this as part of my responsibility, I am there to help my athletes, participants and mentees surf the wave of human nature on the sea of social media. Training horses is a long and hard path to navigate. With many, many opinions, beliefs and methods. As long as the welfare of the horse is not compromised, there is nothing wrong with the varied approaches. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

Social media is flooded with images of people winning rosettes and horses performing myriad of tricks. But ask yourself, how much do you know about the people behind the images? Be careful how you react to them, let’s pop back to the party analogy for a moment. This time, you are a guest at the party, how do you behave around friends at the small dinner party compared to acquaintances at the big drinks party? How do you behave around complete strangers at the out of control house party? I would hope you reserve judgement and become a little more adaptable around strangers than you do around people you know well. What one person sees as lively debate, others may feel as an attack. We never truly know what someone is thinking or feeling and the all important non-verbal communication is completely absent on social media.

I feel my business benefits from Facebook but I do not use Facebook for validation, confirmation or education. Posts and ideas I see on Facebook nudge my thinking at times and encourages me to investigate and research further. Social media has been the platform that has introduced me to new ideas, new people and new things but it worries me to think people may take what they see on social media as the whole story and the whole truth. Your dinner party may well be on social media, you may have a very tight and supportive group on social media. Indeed, I personally enjoy the support of WhatsApp groups of coaches formed after working with or meeting them. It’s definitely not all bad, a lot of it provides an excellent opportunity for sharing and caring. I think the essential thing is to be realistic and honest about your interactions and consider the person behind the post or comment.

Regardless of how you are involved with horses, as a coach, rider, owner, parent or professional, engage with, and enjoy, the social media house party, but reserve your actions and reactions for your private dinner parties. Where the training and welfare of your horse is concerned, invite your trusted professionals to a dinner party, don't run around the house party asking strangers what to do. The outcome of the dinner party will be much more effective and relevant to you and your horse than the crazy global house party that is social media.

Tom Fray BHS Stage 4 and UKCC L3 coach and Rider.

There are some fantastic organisations out there that can help with cyberbullying and mental health. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, It’s ok to be not ok.

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