Social Media, TV, and Podcasts don’t incentivize constructive dialogue. Here’s how a new platform centered around the human voice can fix that.
We don’t talk to each other anymore. This isn’t to say we don’t communicate: a 2015 Pew survey found that over half of teenagers said they text with one another every day. Mere conversation is arguably more common than ever before in our society’s history. However, the same study found that fewer than a quarter of the teens participated in daily conversations over the phone or in person. What is lacking at this moment is deep and meaningful discussion using the human voice.
What is this doing to us? As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff detail in their new book “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” nearly one in five adolescent girls had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. The rate for boys is much lower, and hasn’t changed much recently, but the rate for girls has nearly doubled from preceding years. One. In. Five. Let that sink in.
Could we just be diagnosing girls more? Not likely: the authors cite research showing that teenage girls’ suicide rate roughly doubled over the same time period, which we wouldn’t expect if the underlying depression rate remained constant. And what might this be caused by? In part: our phones. Screen time like electronic device use and watching TV for more than 2 hours per day are highly positively correlated with depression and suicide, while in-person social interactions are negatively correlated.
We often talk about smartphones’ “disruption” of major industries. What we’ve overlooked for too long is their disruption of basic human interaction: our phones are making our kids sick. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Our preference of text-based to vocal interaction has claimed another casualty: our ability to engage in patient, nuanced conversations with those that disagree with us. A society without a robust civic discourse is a profoundly dangerous one. If we can’t hash out issues with our voices, there are few, if any, alternatives to violence: if there are no possible moves to advance their interests, the game players will simply decide to flip the table. Indeed, our current suite of conversational tools has enabled an environment resembling not a regular chess game with two players and all of the pieces, but rather two separate games, each with only one player, where the pieces are only pawns. We’re not talking with those that disagree with us enough, and when we do, we don’t use the right tools to make those conversations go well. The key missing ingredient is the human voice. We need a new tool, one that uses the radically empathetic nature of the human voice, to create a space for citizens to come together and discuss the issues of the day.
Twitter and Facebook are effectively virtual gladiator arenas where individuals, performing for their respective followers, can find themselves being attacked by scores of vitriolic comments. Even in-person media reliably fail to generate constructive conversations: TV interviews and debates, in which participants receive a scant amount of time to talk, lead to rhetorical jousting where conversants defensively feel the need to “beat” their interlocutors, which more often results in the most vociferous debater, rather than the supporter of the strongest idea, appearing like the winner. You’d be foolish to concede valid points to an opponent whose boot is on your throat. Finally, live podcasts rarely bring together two people with diametrically opposed arguments to explore commonalities and differences. The vast majority of today’s content predominantly involves ideologically aligned people in conversation. Think about your favorite podcasts: I’ll bet that there are at least an order of magnitude more episodes that featured broad agreement between like-minded people than episodes highlighting substantial disagreement between those with divergent views.
Our society faces innumerable challenges, many of them urgent and with profound implications for human well-being. With the current political gridlock, finding common ground (not compromising, but finding areas of alignment) will become increasingly necessary to build the coalitions needed to affect political change. To accomplish this, we must talk with each other. What other options do we have? On a more philosophical level, conversations are critical tools that allow us to stress-test our ideas and beliefs against viewpoints from a diverse range of backgrounds, as all human beings are infused with their own biases. How can I know I’m right about something without consistently seeking out the strongest possible argument against my view, assessing it, and re-calibrating in light of new information?
So why don’t we just get together and talk with each other more? Easier said than done. First and foremost: we’re all busy all the time, and we might not be in the same location as those we’d like to talk to. Second: having hard conversations can be unpleasant because of high emotions and personality clashes. Humans procrastinate when faced with unpleasant tasks. Real-world attempts to foster in-person discussion forums bear this out (which explains the lack of podcasts featuring those with diverging views): Liz Joyner, founder of the organization “Village Square”, which seeks to create a venue for in-person discussion between citizens, admits that, while these forums are highly effective when they do occur, it’s hard to get people in the same room: they don’t want to do this work.
Talking with each other, in person, for as much time as we need, is hard. But the human voice is the critical component to convey complexities and nuances of difficult topics. As psychologist Juliana Schroeder so eloquently puts it, “speech reveals and text conceals.” Her research finds that, if you hear someone speak an opinion aloud, you tend to think the person more reasonable, more rational, and more thoughtful than if you had read the same opinions. Fascinatingly, whether or not the interaction uses video is irrelevant: discourse achieves greater agreement when it involves the human voice.
A pragmatic outlook on the impracticality of masses of people joining in-person discussion forums, combined with the necessity of including the human voice, steers us to a possible solution, which I’m calling DiscussIt.
This new platform entails two discussants recording audio segments of their own points, roughly three to five minutes per segment. The person going first, prompted by a current event, article, or other situation, would email their take on it, using their recorded voice, to the other person. The recipient then has time to digest the other person’s thoughts — crucially, the lack of in-person immediacy affords as much time as needed. They may now construct a thoughtful response, free from the defensive pressure inherent in traditional debate and live podcasts. The goal is to give each discussant enough time to more deeply consider the merits of the other’s words. I like to describe this as “blogging meets podcasting meets walkie-talkie.” Critically: this is not a forum for debate, but rather discussion. There are no “winners” or “losers.” The back-and-forth goes as long as the participants want, and at the end, the segments are combined into one long conversation, and released for others to hear.
OK. Deep breaths. You’re probably wondering: what would this sound like? Take a listen to one such conversation for yourself. Second, toward keeping our expectations in line: I’m under no illusions that DiscussIt will be a panacea for all the ills of our political discourse. Further, DiscussIt is not a substitute for political organizing, movement building, or on-the-ground work. DiscussIt is a complementary tool to those endeavors, designed to enhance and amplify them.
In short, my aim in creating DiscussIt is to improve the quality of our society’s conversations. Humbly and ambitiously, I propose replacing the Twitter sniping and the Facebook gang-ups with voice-based conversations. I want DiscussIt to be the premiere venue for hashing out differences. We need to bring the two players back to the same chess board, and give them the all the pieces to fully play the game.
I’d like to encourage each and every one of you to think of someone with whom it’s been difficult for you to engage using our current suite of social media tools. Give them a call (try not texting!), and ask them if they’d be willing to participate in a conversation on DiscussIt. If they’re in, email me and I’ll facilitate the entire process. Heck, if you want to take part in DiscussIt but don’t have a discussant in mind, I’ll help you match up with one. Together, we can build DiscussIt into the model for political discourse in our society. I believe that, deep down in our hearts, we know that the discourse on Twitter and Facebook is fundamentally flawed. So let’s create the alternative ourselves, one conversation at a time, and make voice-based interaction the new normal.