Serious Discussions on Social Media

Adlai E. Stevenson was another big presidential loser with a sense of the ridiculous. When he was running against Dwight D. Eisenhower, someone rushed up after a speech to inform him he would have “the support of all thinking Americans.” “Not enough,” Stevenson replied. “I’m going to need a majority.”

If you really care about a topic, esp. when it is a minority position, you might want to spread your position. There are many highly positive developments that were due to small minorities changing the status quo (e.g., environmentalism — before it got highjacked that is). But if you want to discuss a minority opinion on social media — and you get replies (not an easy feat sometimes) — you might be in for a shock.

It is very hard to have a meaningful discussion.

One reason is that the majority might now know why they believe what they do, and without good arguments, some people go ballistic (see prior posting). But there are other reasons when it comes to social media:

1. The Filter Bubble

There are millions of voices online, making it impossible for any person to get an overview of all the conversations and participate in them. So, people use search terms, hashtags, follow people they like or loath, etc. No matter what you put out, it is very likely that only some very specific people will see it. So, the reactions you get do not come “from the Internet”, but from a specific subgroup of the Internet.

2. Self-Selection of Replies

When it comes to who replies on the postings or tweet they see, the people who most likely reply are probably those who care strongly about the issue and whose position strongly agrees to or disagrees with yours. And if you have a minority position, disagreement is probably more likely.

3. Public Commitment

Another factor is the public nature of the conversation — and the fact that it is enduring. When you say something in the privacy of an intimate face-to-face conversation, no one else knows (hopefully). But online, not only can everyone else see your position, it is also available for a long time. Thus, people might find it difficult to change their position. They would have to admit that they are wrong. And while some people see this as positive and a sign that they are not dead but learned something, many people “try to appear perfect” and avoid it like hell.

These factors can make you question the intelligence of humanity. But then again, it’s not surprising that you get these replies. Given the nature of the people who read what you write, who replies, and their public commitment, don’t expect changing minds in online discussions. Even if the affordances of social media would allow you to do make a perfect argument that is read and understood (difficult in a world of soundbites and memes, where many people do neither expect nor invest that amount of thought in something), it is highly unlikely to change minds.

But then again, that’s not why you should discuss. The people to convince are not the ones with an extreme counter-position to yours, who would have to admit to having wasted their time and effort if they would change their mind. But the ones who are still undecided, who are open to discussion. This silent, yet undecided middle ground, might actually be influenced by short, well-thought out comments — as well as seeing people on the other side of your position going off the reservation. After all, arguments give you reason, but “I sure as hell don’t want to have a position like those nut-jobs” can provide the necessary motivation. 😉

So, have the right expectations, don’t get into a shouting match with nut-jobs(*), nor trap yourself in an echo chamber. Try to reach the undecided middle.


(*) One side-remark, personally the best reaction to comments by nut-jobs I’ve seen so far is to simply quote them. People who are so far-off often deliver the best arguments against their position. Or to quote Pratchett:

He had in fact got it from a leader in the Times, which the wizards did not like much because it either did not print what they said or printed what they said with embarrassing accuracy.
“Unseen Academicals” by Terry Pratchett

And if you really want to reply to outrageous comments, try humor. Usually works best. Never trust any position or movement that does not have a sense of humor — or cannot deal with it.