You don’t have to be at the centre of the storm to be affected by online controversy. Instead of shying away from social media debates, we need to recognize and address the differences that make online conversations too hot to handle.
If you are Jian Ghomeshi, you can stop reading now. This post isn’t about how to survive a sex scandal when you’re at the centre of the storm — as the Canadian broadcaster now is, thanks to allegations of assault and sexual harassment.
It’s a post for all the rest of us: those who find our Facebook feeds, Twitter streams and newsreaders suddenly overflowing with salacious details and political diatribes. In a world in which so many of us not only receive our news online, but digest and process it there, a scandal like Ghomeshi’s is a recipe for getting mired in other people’s controversies — whether we want to or not.
What do you do when your social networks explode into polarizing debate? How do you participate without hurting others — or yourself? How can you engage in divisive conversations so that you actually learn from them, and maybe even change your views?
It doesn’t take a sex scandal to raise these questions. Any controversial issue will do, whether it’s the response to Ebola, the practices of the Ferguson police force, or even Renée Zellweger’s face. Just yesterday, my Gomesh-a-thon was interrupted by an explosive conversation about teaching evolution, in a Facebook group dedicated to homeschooling.
This post is your survival guide to those days or weeks when social media feels too hot to handle. It offers some practical advice about how to turn down the temperature or insulate yourself.
But the most powerful tool, and the most fundamental protection, is simply to recognize what’s going on when we explode online. We explode because we come to each of these debates with different ideas about the social media spaces in which our conversations unfold, with different ideas about who is in our online community, and with different levels of investment in the issues at hand.
Defining the social media space
The analog world offers us a lot of cues about what kind of conversation — and what degree of confrontation — is appropriate. If you’re in an academic seminar or a Parliamentary question period, you know that vigorous debate is the order of the day. If you’re a dinner guest in a private home, not so much.
These social conventions lean heavily on longstanding (and gendered) notions about public versus private space. Public space is where we do the serious work of business and governance: it’s traditionally conceived as the rough-and-tumble world of men. Private space is where we socialize with family and friends: historically, it was the gentle, nurturing and mannered world of women.
Because social media is still so new, we haven’t sorted out whether it’s public or private — or more realistically, which social media contexts are public or private. The social shorthand that tells us whether we are playing by “man rules” (argue, debate, defend) or “woman rules” (listen, support, suggest) is missing, and while that can be liberating (you mean I don’t have to choose whether to “talk like a man”?) it can also be confusing.
For some of us, social media is public space. When we approach social media as a publishing platform, that’s the public space paradigm at work. We think through our ideas, draft our blog posts or Facebook comments, and post them once they’re fully baked; we assume what we post is on the record. Because we treat Facebook or Twitter like a newspaper with no editorial board, we are ready for “letter to the editor” responses: feedback that challenges, applauds or critiques what we’ve written.
Using social media to build a “personal brand” is another way of invoking the public space paradigm. We are there with our professional hats on and our virtual business cards at the ready, and we’re looking to burnish our reputations and extend our networks. We approach an online conversation as if it’s taking place at the office, or at an industry conference. We may polish what we say before posting, or we may not weigh in on the issue of the week at all — because we don’t want to endanger our professional status or relationships by taking a position.
For others, social media is private space. We take the notion of Facebook “friends” literally, and assume a level of trust and intimacy in our online conversations. We “shoot the shit”, make jokes we wouldn’t make in front of the boss, and let our inner radical out of the closet. We explore ideas and figure out what we think about the issue at hand, perhaps changing our minds in the process. Yet that process may play out in front of (or through interaction with) people we’ve never met offline, and who may not be bound by any sense of privacy or personal loyalty.
More complicated still, many of us are switch hitters. We’re publishers in the morning and networkers in the afternoon; by the evening, we’re ready to curl up with a glass of wine and dish the dirt with our online friends. But those shifting contexts may not be evident to our online contacts, particularly if we use the same accounts or usernames for both “public” and “private” conversation.
Without common expectations or signals about whether a social media conversation is following the rules of public space or private space, we risk clashing contexts. If you’re approaching a conversation as a citizen journalist, and I’m approaching it as a therapeutic process, you’re likely to get frustrated, and I’m likely to get hurt. That’s when social media feels like that bad dream where you show up at a business meeting in your pajamas: you’ve stumbled into a public space, dressed as your most private self.
Declaring one approach as the “right” way to use social media is not the answer. Part of what makes social media so compelling — and our use of it so crucial — is that it’s a new medium, still open to definition and interpretation. We need to use these nascent spaces in as many ways as possible, so that we discover their possibilities and inspire the creation of new spaces, tools and use cases.
But when we bring a hot button issue into one of these nascent spaces, it’s worth pausing to define the space we are stepping into. While we aren’t describing an actual physical space, we can articulate expectations or invoke analogies that signal whether a conversation is following the conventions of public or private space, or trying to dance between them.
Since any hotly debated subject will be discussed in a range of platforms and posts, we can’t define a single set of expectations for the conversation as a whole. We need to define our space and signal expectations post by post or even comment by comment.
Thankfully, we have a lot of cues we can work with. The choice of platform signals whether something is a published set piece (like a blog post on Medium) or a quick thought (a tweet or short update). The kind of language we use — formal or informal, tentative or confrontational — signals whether something is fully baked and public, or partially baked and personal.
Most crucially, we need to start setting explicit expectations in the first line of what we post: “here’s something I’m just starting to think about”, versus “here’s how I think about this issue after spending two weeks researching and writing about it.” And it is absolutely acceptable — indeed, often smart — to let people know what kind of feedback you’re inviting: “I need encouragement and ideas about how to take this further”, or “let me know where you see holes in my thinking”.
Defining your community
Unless you’ve protected your Twitter profile or been extremely selective in accepting Facebook friend requests, your social media “community” is probably made up of many different communities. Some of these communities may be formally defined, like a Facebook group or a recurring Twitter chat; others may be looser networks of overlapping conversations, reinforced by shared social circles or algorithms that focus your attention on a few beloved friends. Your own place in each of these communities is likely to vary: in some, you might be the official or de facto moderator, or an active community participant; in others, you may be a lurker who hovers on the edge and offers only the occasional comment.
Part of the joy of social media is the ability to dip in and out of different communities. Offline, it’s hard to sustain meaningful participation in more than a few contexts or circles; online, you can actually track and engage in ten, twenty or even dozens of distinct social media communities. You might have very different circles of Facebook friends, ranging from your high school pals to a cluster of friends from the neighbourhood; keep in touch with a couple of groups on LinkedIn; participate in half-a-dozen listservs related to different industry groups; contribute to a couple of recurring hashtags on Instagram; participate in a few ongoing, hashtagged conversations on Twitter; regularly read and respond to comments on a few of your favourite blogs; and also be part of a few support or special interest groups on one of these networks, or elsewhere.
If you think of all these different contexts as your social media “community”, you are in for a rough ride the next time a major debate erupts online. Your parenting support group might be a great place to talk about the anxieties you feel after a school shooting; the same conversation could go in a whole other direction if shared with your LinkedIn group for policymakers (including lots of folks from Texas).
That’s why it’s crucial to think about each of your social media homes or circles as a community in its own right, and to be aware of what you want to get out of (and bring to) each one. When there’s a major conversation unfolding that you care about, think about who you want to discuss that issue with, and go to that community for the conversation. Conversely, if you know that one of your communities is going to drive you nuts for as long as a particular story is in the news, just stay away…unless you are prepared to take on the job (and the grief) of challenging people who see the issue differently. I seriously can not have one more feminism 101 conversation, so when it comes to gender politics, I tend to hunker down and focus on links and comments that are shared by other people who’ve spent a lot of years thinking about gender issues.
Where this gets tricky, of course, is when you have a community you are deeply invested in…but which disappoints you in the way it addresses an issue you care about. That’s when it’s time to ask whether it’s a community you want to be part of: a few people left my homeschooling group this week over the whole creationism vs. evolution debate. While we can experience a major sense of loss when we recognize that a particular community no longer feels safe or welcoming, I would argue that this is one of the benefits of hot button issues: they give us a chance to see our communities in a new light, and to re-assess our commitments to the communities in which we live online.
That kind of triage needn’t be limited to formally defined communities that you can leave or unsubscribe from. To the extent that we constitute informal communities through the people we follow or engage with on different social networks, we can and should engage in regular culls. You needn’t be accountable to anyone when it comes to who you engage with online, so if you don’t like the way someone is talking about a particular person or issue, it’s ok to unfollow or even unfriend them. Only you can decide which topics, and which comments, are so over the line that you need to disengage: while I haven’t unfriended anyone over their response to the Ghomeshi story, I recently put someone on my Facebook restricted list after she trash-talked Oklahoma!
The flip side of culls and triage is the question of who is missing from your online communities. If you are are a white person talking with a lot of other white people about Ferguson, you are probably not going to get a whole lot smarter about the relationship between race and law enforcement. That doesn’t mean you should charge into an African-American Facebook group and start asking your ten thousand questions, but it might be a good moment to look for thoughtful commentary from people who have backgrounds different from your own.
Here’s a quick test: if you can scan through your Instagram feed, Facebook feed or Twitter stream, and all you see are faces that could reasonably get away with using your driver’s license, you probably need to follow a wider range of people. Notice I say follow, not engage: when you’re trying to expand your perspective on an issue that’s getting a lot of attention on social media, you need to listen a lot more than you share. And don’t go rifling through other people’s online conversations to find shiny new “insider” perspectives that you can carry back to your usual communities like some kind of trophy.
Just pay attention, and make space for the possibility that tuning into a wider range of communities may actually change how you think about an issue. If your perspective changes so much that you want to shift where you spend your time online, and invest in some new communities or relationships, don’t make that shift in the context of a major online uproar. When a community is struggling with a challenging issue, it often needs to circle the wagons, so that people can engage in conversations with people they already know and trust. This is not the week to join that Canadian BDSM group you’ve always wondered about. Wait for a quieter moment, and introduce yourself when people are feeling relatively safe.
Defining your investment in the issue
The very idea of feeling “safe” in an online conversation depends not only on the space and community, but on how each individual relates to the conversation topic. Even when we’re all talking about the same topic, we aren’t all in the same conversation. Recognizing when you are talking to someone online, but engaging in different conversations, is essential to protecting not only your own safety, but theirs.
We are in different conversations whenever we come to a topic with radically different stakes. For some people, a controversy like the Ghomeshi story is simply an interesting news story that’s worthy of discussion; others may engage in the debate as part of a serious professional or volunteer involvement in a related field like sexual violence or employment law.
And of course, some people come to a news story with a personal investment in the matter at hand. If you’re a woman who has survived sexual assault, Ghomeshi’s story may feel very personal; if you’re the parent of an African-American boy, Michael Brown’s death is much more than just a news story.
When you feel personally invested in an issue that’s in the news, a conversation about that story is a personal conversation. Offline, you have a world of ways to signal that you’re talking about something that really matters to you: through your body language, your tone of voice, the way you make eye contact and possibly even the simple fact of your race, gender or other physical attributes.
Online, it’s easy to fall into a discussion with someone who doesn’t see your personal connection to the story of the day — or who has stakes of their own that are entirely unknown to you. When one person is talking about Jian Ghomeshi because they love the CBC, and the other person is talking about Jian Ghomeshi because she’s a sexual assault survivor, they are probably engaged in different conversations — and one or both of them are likely to get angry or hurt.
That’s not to say that only people with a personal investment in a story should engage in online conversations about it. There are lots of reasons that people talk about news stories online: Some of us are there to learn. Some of us are there to think. Some of us are there to argue, for the pure intellectual fun of it.
All of that’s ok, as long as we recognize how these different agendas affect our attempts at discussing an issue together. Where online conversations get unsafe, and tend to blow up, is when some people are simply debating an issue, and other people are working through a subject that affects their day-to-day lives.
Locating your conversations within a particular community is one way to address that risk; naming your own stake in a conversation is another. But that can be incredibly hard to do, particularly if naming your stake means sharing something deeply personal or intrinsically risky (like your own experience with sexual assault).
That’s why it’s incumbent on all of us to consider the possibility that the issue we are discussing is actually deeply personal to other people in the conversation. How would you respond to a critic of creationism if you knew her family had been forcibly converted to Christianity? How would you respond to someone who’s defending Jian Ghomeshi if you knew she’d been outed for her own participation in BDSM? What would you tweet about Ferguson if you knew Michael Brown’s mother would read your tweet?
These are all hypothetical, but they are the kinds of hypothetical we should carry into each hot button debate. That doesn’t mean avoiding stories that interest or concern you, simply because you’re worried about offending someone: it means recognizing that what you post online may well be seen by people who could be deeply and personally affected by what you say.
Conversely, when you have a personal stake in an issue, it’s important to protect yourself. There’s something romantic about the idea of the principled iconoclast, boldly speaking truth to power. But you don’t need to speak your truth all the time. If you aren’t up for a confrontation, you can almost always choose to opt out of the hot issue of the week.
If you do want to discuss an issue that’s near and dear to your heart — indeed, those are often the issues we most need to process, and social media is often the most accessible way to do so — think about how you can do that safely. Much though I love the idea of the wide-open web, it’s not always wise to bare your soul to the world. That’s why I often find myself falling back to Facebook, where I can share a sensitive post with the specific individuals I trust on a given topic: the same dropdown menu that lets you choose whether to share a post with your friends or make it public will also give you the option of sharing with specific people. (You could do something similar on Google+, or with plain old-fashioned email.)
When you reach out to a limited group of online friends, be sure to let them know: I recently began an update by saying “I’m just sharing this with 22 people whose opinions I trust on this issue”. This not only signals that you want to keep your post semi-confidential, but also lets your friends know that you really, truly want to hear from them.
Of course, anything you post online could at least theoretically escape whatever boundaries you’ve set up, so if it’s something really sensitive, just don’t post it at all. Yes, I sometimes want to scream when I read an online conversation that I find particularly painful, but don’t feel safe joining. That’s when I try to just turn off the computer and talk to my husband, or pick up the phone to call a close friend. Or you can do what a bunch of my friends did when I posted a difficult question on Facebook last year: along with the half-dozen who weighed in on the comment thread, five more friends messaged me privately, or called me personally, to share their perspective.
When we think carefully about what we have at stake on a given topic, or what others might bring to the table, we are much more likely to protect ourselves and others from the worst excesses of online debate. If the conversation about a news story doesn’t feel safe to you, that’s probably because it’s not one conversation: it’s a whole bunch of different conversations, crashing into each other and leaving blood on the road.
Embracing the risk
Those of us who spend big chunks of our lives online are now all-too familiar with the social media cycle around any major news story — particularly those that mix the personal with the political, as the Ghomeshi story does. The story breaks, and many of us hear about it for the first time when it appears on Twitter, Facebook or another social network. As links appear, expounding on the story, we try to infer our friends’ perspectives based on who is sharing which post. A conversation rapidly unfolds, tumbling across tweets and comments; we feel elated by one friend’s remark, and shocked by another. Before long it feels like the entire Internet is consumed in debating the issue at hand.
Social media gets a bad rap for the way many of these debates unfold. We hear that social media is polarizing and confrontational; we hear that social media is an insular echo chamber. We hear that everything we say on social media will become part of our permanent records; we hear that it’s all too easy to be anonymous and unaccountable. We hear that social media conversations are full of elitist navel-gazing about “first world problems”; we hear that social media participants are stupid and ill-informed.
Yes, social media debates suffer from all of these problems. But the fact that social media is broad and flexible enough to encompass these contradictions should tell us that it’s a powerful medium — a medium we need to work through, learn from and improve.
Rather than flee from the challenges of online conversation, we need to embrace them. Nowhere are those challenges more pressing — or the potential payoff greater — than when it comes to talking about difficult issues. The tougher the issue and the bigger the story, the more likely it is to explode on social. But if we can can figure out how to talk about tough issues through social media, without causing an eruption, we may actually turn political chatter into meaningful conversations with people who think differently from ourselves.
Even if you’re the kind of person who enjoys being challenged, the intensity of social media debates can be gruelling. But the very steps we take to make those conversations easier for ourselves — the steps involved in defining our social media space, our social media communities and our stakes in the issue at hand — are the steps that will make social media conversations smarter, less explosive and more meaningful.