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Giving people grace in online discourse

Giving people grace in online discourse

I loved this piece – investing from a cave – mostly because I have been discussing the same thing with Mr. Tucker lately. When I started this blog and when I set up my Instagram I limited comments. Why? Because I used to work in social media, that’s why. I know people are going to hate this because in the past 15 years since social media became a HUGE thing we have been told that everyone has a right to their opinion in the online town square but I am here to say the opposite: no. No, I don’t need to hear every opinion under the sun. In fact, it is probably better that I don’t.

This is not to say that I don’t respect people’s ability to have their own space to voice their own opinions: I most certainly do! But I don’t feel like I should have to “take it” just because it’s online and some bro is screaming, “freedom of speech!” at me. That’s why I tightly control the spaces I have created. While this could be a lengthy treatise on the state of online discourse, that would just be beating a dead horse. We all know that the state of online conversation often rapidly descends into name-calling, abuse and even threats. People have actually died from swatting so it’s a very serious issue that should be taken seriously. I take it seriously by not allowing comments to blow up to that level by …not allowing comments. It’s also why the first thing I did when I went on disability leave was to shitcan twitter. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I do maintain a facebook account for community stuff as well as to keep in contact with certain people. I also have Instagram to document photos and keep up with an entirely different group of people. Often, the algorithm will serve me up some random content – usually a reel – with 20k+ comments on it. It’s just so shocking to me that 20k+ people felt the urge to spend some time of their “one wild and precious life” to argue, denigrate and generally act like an ass online. WHY? Are we so addicted to the dopaminergic buzz we get from beefing with strangers that we let it consume our minutes, hours and days? Clearly the answer is yes. What’s more, other people create this content in order to sew discord amongst people with their hot takes in order to generate income. What a mess.

I have been on the internet for a very, very long time and I remember the days of Livejournal with its snark communities (no literally, they were called Snark_OtherCommunityName) that were designed to trash posts where people were (often) asking really dumb questions. To this day I cannot remember even one of the arguments I had 20 years ago on Livejournal. All those hours spent angry and trying to one-up people was in the end, a ridiculous waste of my time.

As the newer platforms ramped up, reacts & comment sections did similar dirty work on public accounts, and it got worse and worse as the algorithms keyed into the fact that enragement is engagement. If you haven’t read The Chaos Machine yet, I highly recommend it. It details the far-reaching consequences of that business model and how it’s undermined democracy, encouraged genocide and rewired our brains. It’s a great read and a macrocosm of the online negativity we’ve all experienced.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how humans historically have had about 100 people in their circle and even the people who ventured outside of their small hamlets have really only come across about 500. Compare that to the 22k+ comments on a reel and it is no wonder we are living in a time of huge anxiety and worry. Marketing and algorithms favour making us feel inadequate and promote lies and misinformation, so no wonder we are confused, depressed and miserable.

This isn’t to say that I don’t love a rousing debate – because I do! In fact, in high school I was co-captain of the debate team. Nothing fills me with more joy than a couple of pints at the pub with some of my friends, discussing weighty issues. In general, social convention often (but not always) dictates that these conversations are what Nick Cave calls Good Faith Conversations. Here is the difference between a battle of minds at the pub and online comment sections: there is a real, live person in front of you. No one is hiding behind a screen spewing off rage, you know who you are speaking to and you know how to shut things down if they become overheated. It’s much more difficult to read someone’s intent or rage levels when they are behind an avatar. In-person discussions with strangers tend to be kinder, more respectful because you can see their faces, see their feelings and have to often live with them in your community. Conversations happen in the moment, giving people time and space to explain themselves as opposed to online where dialogue can be stretched out over myriad days as just when you think the convo has ended…some random person jumps in and starts fighting all over again. It feels like you constantly have to look over your shoulder because you never know when the attack may start afresh (it’s also why I make all of my facebook posts private after 24 hours – to control the time I spend on there).

Also, we are so much different online than in other sphere of our lives. We act differently around our grandparents than we do our friends. We speak in different tones to our children than we do our bosses. Context matters. So for a lot of people social media has been a balancing act between saying what we feel vs. not saying anything at all for fear of alienating certain groups of people in our lives. Sure, we can have different accounts or use filtered lists (and block the more unsavoury people we still need to keep in touch with) but often it is just easier to keep our social media to the most innocuous content. This makes us feel disingenuous and alienated and sometimes I wonder if it is just easier to not have any content at all.

I am grateful to the internet for bringing me some of the closest, most amazing friends I have ever had but with that comes a dark side. I enjoy blogging and I enjoy reading blogs. I don’t even mind respectful, contrarian points being made. But much too often I see even the most normal people react in extreme ways to content they don’t enjoy or agree with – myself included. Sometimes I will go back and read comments I’ve left previously and they come off as harsh when I intended them to just be factual. That is the challenge with online discourse: you have no frame of reference in body language or knowledge of people’s personalities so it can be read in a completely different tone by different people. Previously I always read comments as being more negative in tone but over the years I have learned to give people more grace and until they show me otherwise, I choose to read their commentary positively instead. It’s difficult and I don’t always hit the target but I do try. We are all human though and are ruled by human foibles like overreacting when we have had a bad day.

Still, in the end, if you don’t like the content I am serving, you are free to not read it at all. You are also free to post a counter-argument in your own space. But you will have to excuse me if I choose to not debate you in public. I don’t have time to respond to pile-ons from strangers and quite frankly, you shouldn’t either. No two people are going to agree 100% of the time and that’s ok. Scroll on my friend, just scroll on.

Let’s all go for a walk and touch some grass.