Walsh’s Wonderings — Arguing on social media

Robert F. Walsh

We’ve all seen it. No sooner does Aunt Martha post an Instagram picture of Bobby trying on Halloween costumes at Walmart than someone is posting about the working conditions or whether big box stores should sell guns to teenagers. Somehow, whether Bobby should go as Spider-Man or a rabbit has devolved into otherwise-rational adults arguing over constitutional amendments. Why does this always happen online?

The artificial intimacy of social media, combined with the immediacy with which we can interact, creates an inflated sense of our own importance. Arguing is typically defined as the exchange of opposing views with the aim of persuading others to agree with one’s position. It presupposes that one is both open to alternatives and prepared to back up positions with facts. None of this applies in the judgment vacuum of social media. Arguing online is like banging one’s head against the wall in the hope it will knock sense into someone else.

It’s as if we leave reality at the door when we log on. When’s the last time you overheard strangers engaged in a heated conversation at a restaurant in the real world, then decided to interrupt so you could offer your opinion? How often do you share your deepest political or religious views with casual acquaintances at your child’s violin recital?

People find this perfectly acceptable online, however. The echo chamber of social media has become an alternate universe where some people live to throw discussions off track. Navigating it requires one to embrace the old line about never wrestling with a pig (you both get dirty, but the pig likes it). Internet trolls have become today’s pigs of the keyboard, perfectly happy to drag you into the mud no matter how inoffensive your original post.

Some of us just can’t help ourselves, though, so here are a few things to remember next time you wade into that argument erupting online:

  1. If someone uses “I,” “me” or “mine” more than three times in reply to a post, it’s no longer about the “issue.” (It just shows they have issues.)
  2. Don’t expect to convince anyone of anything online. Ever. Settle for making your point and a graceful exit. There’s an inverse relationship between the number of replies someone makes to a post and the likelihood they’ll ever change their mind. If one person contributes more than two or three replies to the same post, you won’t get an answer — you’ll get a fight.
  3. You don’t have to have the last word; let it go and trust that others will see the absurdity if someone can’t stop baiting you.
  4. The most important point when arguing on social media: Don’t. Turn to the nearest wall and scream about the upcoming election, gun control, or whatever else you think the world needs your opinion on. Chances are the feedback you’ll receive from the wall will be just as useful as that post you’d have made on Facebook (with the added benefit of never being challenged … unless your walls are really thin and your neighbors particularly nosy).

Social media is wonderful in so many ways, but spending your precious emotional capital on arguments with relative strangers is a sure way to ruin it. If I might be forgiven one more axiom about pigs, it would be to avoid trying to teach pigs to sing; it only wastes your time and annoys the pig. Let me know if you have any other suggestions!

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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