We have all had the experience right? Someone decides that it’s time to blow up your post about something you feel passionate about, or worse, something that you simply thought was funny. Next thing you know, it’s all out war on your page and you’ve spent 4 hours of your life you never get back, leaving you to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, if not in a terrible mood.
But why does this happen? There are lots of articles that talk about confirmation bias and that people are more divided than ever before or how hard we cling to certain ideas, and so on…
But after teaching a college course specifically on diversity in the modern world, I have come to discover a few things when having in class discussions about social media. Now I may not be the first to notice these things, but I think there are at least three major problems (feel free to comment if you see an additional one) that we face when communicating online that we should consider.
1.People have different intentions for the internet
This one, in particular, was really hard for me. As a person who loves books and learning and the spirit of debate, I view the internet as a space to discuss important issues and try to learn from and understand people who are different than me in both philosophy and culture.
For years I loathed it when people shared cat videos or jokes or posted memes. I would grumble to myself about “what a waste of an amazing opportunity” and yes, sometimes I would comment just to be a jerk. Or, someone would post something that was clearly misinformed and I would go on the attack, because, of course, I must. How else would they‘learn.’
Do you know what I learned from thinking and behaving that way? I was completely and totally wrong. Also, people think your an asshole and it’s counterproductive to any useful thing you might say.
People use the internet for a host of reasons. It may be to share news, or keep up with family, or post information about their baby or their cat, or perhaps they like to joke or are looking to relieve stress after a hard day at work. Maybe they are promoting their new book, or using as a space to promote their business. Some people are looking to build awareness around particular issues and provide a space for discussion. I have to tell myself all the time that for some, critical debate is the absolute last thing they want to engage in at the end of their day (or the beginning).
There is also another side of this. Some people use the internet because they want to troll and bully others. Their idea of humor is to harass and bully and get cheap laughs at the expense of others. So we have this group into the mix aswell, which further complicates things. A few weeks ago, when discussing this exact topic in a class, one student raised their hand and said, “But don’t you think it’s funny to write a bot program to troll people and have them waste all their time arguing with a mindless bot?” My response was, ‘well, I suppose that’s one way to engage online.’ But in reality, I think that is hugely problematic for a number of reasons, but I won’t get into that here.
The point is, when you are on social media, it is hard to remember that people’s intentions and use of the social space vary greatly. We are not all on the same page, and so this alone creates conflict, confusion, and misunderstanding.
2. There is no paralanguage, and so we put things on other people that might not be there.
Paralanguage is the components of speech that help us to understand the meaning. It includes pitch, tone, speed, gestures, and facial expressions. It’s how we understand if the following phrase, “That’s so amazing.” is a sincere expression or a sarcastic one.
We don’t have that in written speech. Grammar helps, and a good writer can create a scenario where you understand the tone and attitudes within dialogue, but even then, stuff can get lost in the translation. Also, think how hard it is to tell if some people are joking or not. I am told often, that I have a dry sense of humor, and it’s hard to tell if some of my jokes are serious and that’s in person.
So add this to a forum of total strangers. You don’t know any of these individuals, or you might know a few from previous online interactions. So, someone makes a statement like, ‘That’s so amazing,’ to something you said. But the context of the conversation is such that you could interpret it as either.
In that situation, what your brain does is make assumptions. If you are in a bad mood, or you have had other bad interactions in this conversation, your brain may frame the statement as an attack or a comment in bad faith, which could launch a series of escalating replies and blow up the whole conversation, even if the person was commenting in good faith.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me on both Twitter and Facebook and recently even had to unfriend and block someone who took a comment that I said, as support, in a way where she nuked my page because she understood my comment as something completely different.
It is always always important to get clarification before you lash out at someone online, on social media or in anemail, because a lack of paralanguage will have our brain fill in the gaps. Depending on our history and our current experiences, we may completely misunderstand what the other person is saying. Remember when you assume you make an Ass out of U and Me (I have never stopped loving that play on letters).
3. When it comes to issues of diversity people are both at different stages of understanding and different states of acceptance
First of all, before I dive in here, there is a very excellent episode on the Netflix series “Explained” on PoliticalCorrectness that I highly recommend watching. It is a highly complex thing, and there are no easy answers there. The episode talks about the history of the phrase and some of the debates around free speech vs. censorship. But it does not provide you any clear answers, and that, in this case, is a good thing, because there are none.
The internet is constantly alight with debates of diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you feel about these conversations, they are, for the most part, productive and useful to ensure that people who are sincerely facing injustice and oppression, are opening other’s eyes to their experience.
The problem with these conversations is multi-leveled. And when I say problem, what I mean is, why they are so combative and tense. These are important conversations. This is how society changes into something better.
I will illustrate this with my own experience. I am a white guy, as white as you get. All my ancestors are white as the snow in the northern countries from which they originate. I am a Cis, I am straight, and I grew up in an all-white community. For the first 12 years of my life, before I moved to Colorado, I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, in what was possibly the whitest community you can imagine. Segregation in Philadelphia (and many North East Cities) is a real problem (See this for more). So, when I moved to Colorado at twelve years of age, I was shocked to discover there were still Native Americans alive. I had been taught, by omission mostly, that all Native Americans had died out years before I was born.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I could go in more detail, as to the various kinds of ignorance I had going into college, (middle school and high school was also an all-white experience)because, for me, college was terrifying. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. It was a kick in the gut, it was uncomfortable, but it was a good thing. Why? Because there are a near infinite ways of experiencing the world, and I had made endless assumptions that really, the world was simple, orderly, and experience was mostly universal.
I was, legitimately ignorant of so much of the rest of the world. And that’s a real thing. There are a lot of people out there like that. Even ones like myself, who became an anthropologist, who lived and worked with other cultures, took a long time to challenge all those deeply planted ideas. And I am a person, who is willing and open to learning and accepting that I might be wrong on things. The reality is, some people aren’t willing to learn. Some people are, what we call, willfully ignorant. In other words, no matter what you say, no matter how well you craft an argument, you aren’t going to change their opinion on something, even if you have all the data and truth on your side.
Remember too, we are all ignorant of something, we all have sizable holes in your knowledge and experience. This is based on your gender, race, class, religion, family, language, etc. You cannot know everything, and it is not reasonable to expect someone, who grew up in vastly different circumstances to intuitively understand something you do. If you have never seen poverty for example, how can you understand what it’s like to live that way for your whole life? You can, but it’s no easy task, and you have to think critically about it.
So, when discussing online, the first thing you have to figure out is, which kind of ignorant do you have? Do you have a person who is willfully ignorant? Or is this a person who simply lacks exposure? That does make a difference, and it is a big mistake to treat both kinds of people to ad-hominem attacks because both of those individuals have entirely different intentions when discussing.
This comes to the next point, which is, even people who are willing to listen and learn, they can’t do it all at once. Keep in mind, that by the time you are an adult, your brain has been programmed to think in a certain way for at least eighteen years of life. Neurologically speaking, you simply cannot dismiss ideas overnight, unless you have a massive brain trauma that changes your brain chemistry drastically.
Using myself again as an example, when I first discovered the Implicit Bias test, (the test that measures our subconscious assumptions about things like race and gender) I thought, of course, I would receive the coveted neutral result. Because I didn’t hate anyone or any group right? At age 23, when I took this test and got “A Strong Bias Toward Individuals of European descent,” I was shocked. But, this is entirely explained by the background I grew up in, which I already explained. After that, I went out into the world and studied anthropology. I learned about other cultures, worked with them, and lived with them. After a few years, I remember that test. Took it again, and got “A Moderate Bias Towards Individuals of European Descent.” It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I finally got a Neutral result.
The point? If you are online, you cannot reasonably expect people to understand an issue overnight. You are fighting against years and years of programming and often, lack of quality education. People need time and space to digest things, to shift gears in their thinking. Acceptance of a new idea, rarely happens overnight and the older you are, the longer it takes because there is more social programming.
Does that mean you don’t hold people accountable for saying or posting really awful things? Of course not. But remember what you are fighting against. Remember, that you may not win that discussion, but also, other people are reading and watching even if they aren’t interacting, so it’s still worth having those discussions if you have the intention and inclination to do so.
To Sum Up
The internet can be the most amazing place for building ideas and spreading important social critique and creating a space for inclusion. But it can also be a messy imperfect mess that allows for long-established ideas, to persist and spread. We have seen some pretty terrible events in the last few years, like what happened in Charlottesville or a number other instances of social media being used to spread all kinds of nastiness.
But, if you want to avoid dumpster fires on your social media, keeping some of the above things in mind, may help. In reality, though, it’s not possible to avoid problems, because well, people are messy creatures, and any social space is fraught with controversy and difficulty. But I hope this lengthy piece was useful to the few of you who got all the way to the end. I wrote it, because I believe, that we can do better.
Note: Sometimes I have friends read my blog posts before I post them to get feedback.
This time around, a friend recommended this amazing Ted Talk titled “A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right” I highly recommend as he covers a chunk of what this blog talks about long before I ever even considered it.