Social Media-tion: A Bridge for Young Mediators to Enter--and Re-Define--The Profession?

by Gregg Relyea

April 2018

Gregg Relyea

For years, a gap has existed between mediation training of young students and entry into the field as professional mediators.  Students fall in love with the concept of constructive conflict resolution through mediation.  Then they hit a wall when they confront the conventional wisdom that life experience and subject matter knowledge in traditional fields are absolute pre-requisites to mediation practice.  While life experience and knowledge are important, is it possible that young mediators may be uniquely qualified to mediate conflict in certain areas due to their use and understanding of social media?  Is it possible that a vast opportunity exists for young mediators who want to develop a niche by mediating social media disputes?  Social media-tors?  Social media-tion?

As a law school and university instructor for the past 25 years, I have witnessed the cycle over and over again--the "aha!" experience of students learning about peaceful and productive methods of conflict resolution, the students' powerful attraction to new, yet proven, methods of resolving disputes, followed by the disappointment of being told that they will have to gain experience in litigation or some other specialized field for 5-10 years before even thinking about working as a professional mediator.  After 5-10 years roll by, students have extensive work and family responsibilities that make it virtually impossible for them to change careers or to commit to mediation in anything other than a part-time way as an avocation.

Social media-tion may be one answer to the question of how students can enter the mediation field at an earlier age by providing a bridge from the study of mediation to its practice.  More broadly, this concept of a bridge to mediation practice may be far wider than social media-tion.  It can apply to any endeavor that is largely the province of young people, who, with mediation training, can handle conflict in a specialized realm, e.g., action sports, video gaming, YouTube producing.

The Problem

In an on-going search for conflicts that are relevant to students' lives, for the past several semesters I have asked my law students to write a summary of a social media conflict they have experienced.  Alternatively, if they haven't experienced such a conflict, they may research the Internet and write about another person's social media conflict.  The first finding from this experiment was intriguing--with rare exception, almost every single student has been personally involved in at least one social media dispute.  For those of us who are not social media users, it became immediately apparent that there is an entire world of communication, controversy, and conflict on social media that goes largely unnoticed by non-users.

The second finding was that the range of social media conflict is vast, including insulting or "bad mouthing" another person, unauthorized posting of photographs of others, differences of opinion about political or social issues, "shaming photos" (unattractive or embarrassing portrayals of people), cyber-stalking, bullying, and dissemination of nude or revealing photographs as revenge.  These examples represent only a small sample of the broad range of social media conflict.  Based upon the students' shared experiences, these conflicts can arise soon after the use of social media begins and they can be periodic, intermittent or frequent during the entire period of time social media is used. 

In the classroom assignment, I ask students to describe the nature of the social media dispute, the parties who were involved (without names or identifying information), the efforts that were made to resolve it, and the resolution, if any.  The responses to these questions revealed a third intriguing finding--the overwhelming majority of social media disputes are not resolved.  The most common form of concluding a dispute is to terminate the social media relationship through some form of blocking, unfriending (Facebook), or contacting an account administrator to delete another person's post or even an entire account.  A strong second in terms of handling the dispute is to simply disengage from a lengthy thread of of increasingly heated arguments and accusations, i.e., to drop out of the conversation altogether.  In a small minority of cases, social media users reached an amicable outcome, leaving the vast majority of social media disputes being unresolved through the use of some form of punitive action or left in limbo by inaction and disconnection between the disputants.

 

It should be of concern that, due to the absence of meaningful and effective
dispute resolution services specifically available for social media conflicts,
there is a vast reservoir of unresolved conflict building up in social media
users every day.

 

It should be of concern that, due to the absence of meaningful and effective dispute resolution services specifically available for social media conflicts, there is a vast reservoir of unresolved conflict building up in social media users every day.  How deep does the body of unresolved conflict have to get to reach a breaking point where a social media user's frustration and anger spills over into the general community?  How much unresolved conflict can a person carry before their frustrations crystallize into a cynical view of the world at large and they transfer those feelings to individuals who are not even involved in the social media conflict?  Is there a tipping point where social media conflict shapes coping strategies for other types of conflict?  Where a thick-skinned person's skin gets thicker and veers toward apathy?  Where a thin-skinned person turns their feelings inward and becomes self-destructive?

Some internet service providers and other organizations have attempted to address social media conflict with online dispute resolution programs (ODR) where the disputants have contact with a third party but not with each other.  In other cases, program administrators get involved and they are authorized by a user's terms of agreement to issue warnings or terminating sanctions.  In yet other companies, written protocols are adopted that are either too simple or too complicated to be of practical benefit.  In most cases, there is an element of "distance management," where the parties and the intermediaries rarely interact in real time and the medium used for dispute resolution insulates parties from one another thereby rendering the dispute abstract and unreal. While ODR may be helpful in some high volume minor disputes and it may have great potential, according to the students, previous attempts at ODR have been largely unsuccessful in re-establishing communication between the parties, identifying parties' interests and motivations, and generating personalized terms for a mutually satisfactory resolution.

The Potential 

Social media users know how social media works.  They know how to access it and how to use it.  They are a part of a community of social media users who feel a connection to each other. 

Social media users care about social media. 
Social media plays an important role in their lives.

*            *            *            *

Social mediate users get it.  They feel it.  They crave it. 

Some might even say they are hooked on it.

While numbers vary, it has been estimated that people use social media for an average of 116 minutes per day (which adds up to a lifetime usage of 5 years and 4 months) and teens may use social media for up to 9 hours per day.  (www.businessinsiders.com)  Social mediate users get it.  They feel it.  They crave it.  Some might even say they are hooked on it. 

Many social media users have personally experienced conflict on social media.  They have experienced first-hand the dynamics of social media.  They have experienced the compelling urge to use social media.  And they have often been on both the giving and receiving ends of social media conflict.   It is deeply personal for them.

It may be asserted that, based upon their frequent daily usage and knowing how to use it, social media users have a unique knowledge (though not necessarily an understanding) of social media.  While it may be argued that they could be unwitting targets of social media, social media users know how to navigate through the world of social media.  For social media users, Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat are the lingua franca of the day.

Is it possible that, with formal mediation training, social media users,
by virtue of their working knowledge and frequent usage, may be
uniquely qualified to help others who are involved in social media
disputes with mediation?

This assumes, of course, that social media-tors receive formal mediation training that is specially structured for social media disputes.  And it assumes that they have a degree of emotional maturity that enables them to understand, empathize with, and show compassion for people who are enmeshed in a seemingly intractable social media disputes.  And, it assumes they have the corresponding communication and people skills to be able to manage interactions between disputants.  For the most part, these are learnable skills. 

Social Media-tors 

Is there a need for social media-tors?  Some will answer that most social media conflict is too small and inconsequential to warrant the involvement of a neutral third party.  How small is too small?  What is an acceptable level of unresolved conflict for a sensitive and vulnerable  young child?  Tween?  Teen?  Twenty-something?  And what if a number of small unresolved conflict grows over time--when does it grow large enough to warrant a social media-tor?  Is it advisable to wait until the level of conflict reaches a breaking point? 

In large scale conflicts, what is the value of a person's privacy?  Their reputation?  Sense of safety and security?  Feeling of belonging to a social network at school?  Feeling a sense of place by growing up in a stable community?  Learning, socializing, and growing by going to school?  Can these intangible experiences be described as anything other than priceless? 

Concerns may be voiced about whether a person can afford mediation of seemingly minor social conflict, but the more pertinent question is, "Can we afford not to give social media conflicts the attention they deserve?"  Equally important, it is possible that a positive experience in mediation will have a "butterfly effect" by spreading the experience of talking through difficult conversations, honestly sharing differing perspectives, and working hard to find a mutually agreeable solution.  Social media users are communicators.  It can be anticipated that they will share their experience with social media-tion with others. 

It may be possible to slow or minimize the accumulation of small social mediation conflicts and to directly address serious abuses of social media if early and effective attention is given to them.  It would certainly ease the tension in a person's life if social media-tion services were available at every level of conflict. 

If a social media-tor is not fully equipped to mediate a particular conflict, there is the possibility of co-mediating with a more experienced mediator to ensure that experienced perspectives play a role in the mediation process.  A social media-tor may, for example, team up with a counselor/mediator, social worker/mediator, psychologist/mediator, or a lawyer/mediator to expand the scope of the mediation team's knowledge and experience. 

Social media-tion may be seen as an extension of the peer mediation process that has already proven to be successful in schools, where students are trained to assist other students in resolving common school ground conflict, e.g., teasing, name-calling, cutting in line, using athletic equipment, taking pencils/pens/paper.  Social media-tion could start to fill the sizeable gap between school-related peer mediation and professional mediation of litigated, commercial, and financial conflicts. 

Is there a market for social media-tors?  The potential exists for a specialized career in social media-tion, but it has yet to be determined how an individual mediator, group, or in-house mediator might find, attract, and maintain a consistent and reliable customer base.   Perhaps social media, itself, could be a key to finding a market.  Who would be more savvy social media marketers than the people who are knowledgeable and tuned into social media--the potential social media-tors, themselves?  It is conceivable that social media-tors might be able to find in-house positions with various social media organizations to mediate internal conflicts (like an ombudsman, but with specialized technological knowledge).  It is also possible that social media-tors may form groups or associations to handle social media disputes for the general community.  And, it is always possible that, with entrepreneurial spirit, individual social media-tors could develop a following.  It is, after all, in the nature of the social media world that word travels fast and far.  An effective social media-tor may find themselves with more business than they can handle if they have successfully spread the word about their specialized mediation service. 

A business model for social media-tion would have to be developed.  Free/volunteer mediation, while important in appropriate cases, could slow the growth of professional social media-tion.  Social media-tors would have to find rates that their market would support.  This might involve, perhaps, a sliding scale of hourly rates depending upon the nature, severity, and complexity of the conflict.  Skype and other technologies might help to create real time mediation experiences even where the parties are geographically distant from each other. 

Some have observed that there is a trend toward niche practice and specialization by mediators in general. Certain types of disputes call for special knowledge of the subject matter (intellectual property, bio tech, high tech, construction, environmental).  Social media-tion is perfectly aligned with that trend.  It is unlikely that a person with little or no social media knowledge could fully understand the issues, dynamics, personal interests and needs, and range of outcomes of a social media dispute.   For this reason, social media-tors may actually have a unique personal and professional business advantage.  It is also possible that social media-tors, with additional specialized training, may be able to gradually expand their practice to include intellectual property disputes involving coding, manufacture of processors, ownership issues surrounding patents and other intellectual property.

The Challenge 

This is a call to all social media users with an interest in constructive conflict resolution.  The challenge is to conceive and develop cost-effective and beneficial social media-tion services to stem the rising tide of social media conflict.  The need for social media-tors clearly exists.  A business model will have to be developed that is affordable and sufficient to sustain a social media-tion practice.  A market will have to be defined and reached. And various adaptations of conventional mediation, including co-mediation, may have to be made to accommodate the unique issues in a social media conflict.  

Building a bridge from the study of mediation to the practice of mediation is possible--but only if the conventional wisdom of delayed entry into the practice of mediation is disrupted and re-imagined.

 

Whatever the mind can conceive,
It can achieve.

--W.C. Clement

Since 1992, Gregg F. Relyea has served as a full-time private mediator, arbitrator, and mediation trainer. Mr. Relyea has recently co-authored a children's story book, Trouble at the Watering Hole," with Dr.. Joshua Weiss about conflict resolution skills.  It is aimed at children from 3- to 12-years-old and is available on the Harvard Program on Negotiation (PON) website and amazon.com.  The storybook is accompanied by a parent/teacher guide that is filled with games, activities, and conversation-starters.  Mr. Relyea has also authored a comprehensive skill-building text, "Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills and Practices," that is accompanied by an integrated Power Point presentation and teacher's manual.

For the past 20 years, he has taught negotiation, mediation and ADR at the law school and university levels.  Teaching and practicing mediation have provided Mr. Relyea with a unique opportunity to observe the negotiating behaviors of lawyers, parties, and students.  In addition, Mr. Relyea provides neutral fact-finding services for employment matters, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and wrongful termination. Facilitation services for large group issues and disputes also are available.  Mr. Relyea has been teaching and training professional mediators in the United States and abroad since 1995  He is available for private consultation, programs and conferences, and in-house law firm training programs as well.  Mr. Relyea has written numerous articles about mediation, negotiation, and alternative dispute resolution.

 



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