WAfyWF: In online conversations, look beyond the screen


How do you keep yourself from falling down the internet argument rabbit hole, especially when it’s with people that you have to share an online space with?


Trolling and un-winnable arguments are far older than the internet, but they sure do seem to proliferate in the void, don’t they?

I have a pretty strict policy against arguing on the internet, but especially with people I don’t know because it is simply unproductive. I don’t know anything about them or where they’re coming from, what kind of hurts and biases they may have, or what exactly it is about me that they might have a problem with. I am open to receiving perspectives from others and occasionally even unsolicited advice if I sense that it’s truly well-intended and not just aimed to injure. But when someone points their ignorant bullshit toward me, I do not hesitate with a good old fashioned block and report. 

When it comes to people that you “have to share an online space with,” let’s say you’re in some kind of social group that communicates primarily online, and you don’t want to leave the group just because someone there rubs you the wrong way. Do you have to interact with the person in question? Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I suggest you limit both how much you speak to  them and how much you speak about them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t report them or seek support from others if this individual is harassing you or trying to pick a fight. The more you speak to or about this person, the more power you give them. People who feel powerless in their personal lives often try to build their feeling of power by bullying, harassing, and trolling. I don’t have a perfect solution to this problem, but you can limit how much power they have in your life by not letting them dominate your every thought or conversation.

I strongly recommend limiting your social media interaction to things that feel supportive to you. Here’s how I handle it: I don’t post much publicly because it doesn’t feel like a genuine or rewarding form of communication to me. Rather than “follow” the posts of everyone I know, I check on people individually from time to time, and I take part in groups where we talk about a shared interest. I prefer communities with clear, enforceable standards of behavior. This allows me to interact with people on a more personal basis and also avoid being bombarded with toxic commentary from, say, some acquaintance of a cousin I haven’t seen in 12 years. I rarely post about politics or news except in private groups because most of the people in my life are already well-informed and forward-thinking people who don’t need me to preach to them. I realize that being a social media activist is quite en vogue these days, but my personal activism takes place in my real world and does not require the affirmation of a bunch of “likes” on Facebook. If someone I care about or encounter often is problematic (either because of a negative attitude or something more pernicious) I prefer to have a sincere, face-to-face conversation with them about it rather than call them out online. Granted, there are times when it is necessary to call attention to bad behavior in a visible and public way. Specifically, calling out public officials and others who have lots of power is valuable because their actions affect many of us, and the public conversation (i.e. social media) is our most accessible way to influence them. But calling out your neighbor Joe will typically make him feel embarrassed and defensive, which rarely works out well. When speaking with someone with the same amount of power as you or less, a kinder, gentler approach is almost always best. If you cannot muster any kindness toward a person, rather than add more hate into the world, be quiet. I’m not saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” because sometimes the things people need to hear are not nice. But if there is hate in your heart when you say it, reconsider.

Another aspect to not falling down the black hole of internet arguments is not viewing every conversation as a conflict. Try not to assume the worst about the people you’re in conversation with. That can be hard if you’re dealing with a known bully, bigot, or facsist, and the existence of things like Twitter bots makes us question the very basis of many conversations because we have to ponder: Am I speaking with a real human being or not? But think about the people you know in real life, and consider that most of us are trying really hard to do what we think is right, even when we aren’t sure what that is. We like to think of ourselves as good, and most of us try to behave in ways that reinforce our self-perception as “good people.” All of us have some blind spots and bad habits, and discussing them in a meaningful way is extraordinarily hard to do via social media. So, if someone’s behavior online is bothering you, it may be helpful to ask yourself, “What does this person’s behavior say about them and their life?” When I was a kid, and I would complain to my mom about other kids being mean at school, she would say, “I feel so sorry for her. She must be a very sad person. She probably doesn’t have very many friends. I wonder where she learned to act that way.” Frankly, that used to make me really angry, but Mom was right. People who are habitually unkind are intimate with unkindness. They are more comfortable with hurt than with love. Do not put yourself in their way, but don’t wish them any further suffering if you can help it. 

If you enjoy interacting with your friends’ posts and feel that engaging with their ignorant relatives is your personal calling, you might still consider limiting the amount of time you spend on social media each day. Whatever your limit is, make it firm. Download a browser plugin to block social media for at least a few hours each day. During that time, focus on interacting with the people around you more. Go outside and see your neighborhood. Social media is not a very flattering reflection of humanity, so get a look at our better side by saying hello to your neighbor who’s out walking their dog and remembering to say thank you to the people who help you at the grocery store or coffee shop. Let these small, positive interactions shift your perspective a little. Hopefully when you go back to the conversation, you can bring back the fresh air and goodwill. 

Don’t forget that the question form is still open!