How offline relationships affect online debates

I had an interesting experience Friday debating politics with Jeff Jacoby and Howard Owens on Twitter. It was the usual: big versus small government, federal versus local, food stamps and the best way to help the poor, etc.

I thought we had a civil discussion, although it got a bit heated at times. Then others came in and were pretty disparaging of Jeff and Howard. And I realized what a difference it makes when you know someone in the real world, and how that changes the way you frame your online discussions. I know Jeff and Howard offline, and I also know they are as intelligent and well-read as I am, if not more so. Yes, I think they’re wrong on some issues, but I know they arrived at their positions honestly and that I’m not going to change their minds by shooting off 140-character rockets.

And it underscored the futility of getting into social-media battles with people you don’t know. It is a massive waste of time. Yes, talking politics with people we know is always a good idea. Listen and learn. Even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll understand more than you did before. And don’t bother fighting with strangers.

Speaking of online conversations … like many, I have found that discussions are often richer and more substantive on Facebook than anywhere else. So feel free to weigh in here.

2 thoughts on “How offline relationships affect online debates

  1. George Snell

    I read some of that debate (and even weighed in with my two-cents on the Civil War). I must admit that I’m an occasional reader of Jacoby and had to restrain myself from making a snarky remark in response to some of his tweets. I’ve never met him and as a result have a more visceral reaction to his opinions – which I nearly always disagree with. Now granted I’ve never met you in person, but have been an active reader and contributor to your blog/social media presence, so when I see something you have written that I disagree with I always give you the benefit of the doubt.

    That’s a long way of saying that I agree that familiarity breeds patience and more compassion in a debate.

  2. annatarkov

    I guess it would make sense that Facebook is a good place for these discussions since people are their real selves there (for the most part). So the lack of anonymity works for discussions about sensitive topics.

    I am totally with you aboit Twitter being a very difficult place to do it. I have tried and tried and tried to have meaningful discussions there, but it usually doesn’t work. Sometimes even when it’s people you know IRL! The character limit is a big part of it. On App.net, where the limit is 256 characters, I have had great success discussing sensitive topics with total strangers. More words means more space to get one’s point across in a constructive and non-confrontational way.

    On Twitter, with the insufficient character limit, knowing the person on the other side of the argument is definitely helpful. I chimed in on your debate with Howard as you know and I too know Howard offline, though not very well. Just now, I replayed our back and forth in my mind and asked myself what I would have thought of Howard if I didn’t know him. I pride myself on being open-minded and tolerant and I’d like tp believe I would have given him the benefit of the doubt. But if I’m honest with myself, I may have been just as likely to mentally caricature him as a right-wing crank, an ideologue with little critical thinking ability. It’s so easy to do that when all you have to go on are a person’s statements in the midst of an argument.

    I do believe good discussions and anonymity can co-exist, but like you said, it takes effort. On David Simon’s blog, to cite an example of something I’ve recently read, debates in the comments can get very heated. But Simon is in there, replying to every comment that warrants a response, often at great length. And replying and replying and replying until there is an understanding or agreement or some other sort of resolution. Again, this obviously works better because there is no character limit in comments.

    As an aside, you should ask Howard about his debates with Simon about paywalls over on CJR’s website. It was my distinct pleasure to be part of that discussion too. It was, in a word, epic🙂

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