How To Disagree on Twitter

I finally wrote another Daily Dot piece!

There are a few rarely-questioned Internet truisms. One is “don’t feed the trolls.” Another is that Twitter is a place where real conversations go to die.

It’s certainly true that there are things about Twitter that make it really difficult for in-depth discussion, especially if that discussion involves disagreement. Twitter is fast-paced, character-limited, and almost entirely public. Feeling pressured to respond quickly and fit complex thoughts into short bits of text, people may express themselves unclearly. Others may jump in, take tweets out of context, and misunderstand the nature of the conversation or the opinions being expressed.

However, having had many productive disagreements on Twitter, I don’t believe that it’s impossible to do. It just takes some thought and practice. Here’s how.

1) Figure out if you actually want to have a conversation

I say this because a lot of people don’t. They may not want to for all sorts of reasons—it’s exhausting, they’ve tried before, it’s triggering, they’re worried that the person will treat them badly, they’re just too upset, they’ve got other things to do. But often, people feel expected or obligated to discuss sensitive topics with total strangers because they think they “ought” to educate them.

But you don’t. You don’t owe that to anyone, no matter how much you know or how well-spoken you are.

Other times people do want to engage, but they don’t want to discuss. Sometimes they just want to express anger at the person or tell them to shut up and leave them alone. I think this can sometimes accomplish a lot of useful things, but it’s not the same thing as having a conversation with someone in order to understand their view and educate them about yours. When responding to someone on Twitter—or anywhere, really—it can be helpful to have a clear idea of what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish.

2) Assume best intentions

If you’re hoping to have a substantive conversation with someone, this is as important as it is difficult. Try to assume that, as wrong as they are, the person you’re talking probably means well. If you’ve ever tried talking to someone who seems to be convinced that you’re a terrible person who wants to hurt them, you probably know that that doesn’t usually go so well. It takes incredible patience and confidence to continue to calmly engage with someone who seems to think the worst of them, and, unfortunately, few of the people we encounter online (or anywhere else) will have these qualities.

Assuming best intentions doesn’t mean you have to keep doing so in the face of contradictory evidence. Once someone has shown that they do not have the best of intentions—for instance, by continuing to use words you have said are hurtful, constantly interpreting everything you say in the worst possible light, or expressing a belief that you find completely, destructively abhorrent—you can safely go ahead and stop assuming that they’re basically a decent person who just doesn’t get the message you’re trying to deliver. At that point, having a conversation might not be possible.

3) Learn first, teach later

When you see someone being wrong on the Internet, it can be tempting to immediately tell them why they’re wrong. I fall victim to this temptation all the time. However, it can be more useful to first try to learn more about the beliefs that led them to say the wrong thing. Not only does it build rapport with the person—which can be useful for influencing their opinions later—but it also gives you valuable information about why people believe the things they believe. Even if you think you already know, you might still learn something new by asking.

This is especially important on Twitter, where criticism often seems to come from nameless, faceless strangers who are easy to just ignore (or perhaps lash out at). Opening with a question to learn more about the person’s opinions might make it more likely that they’ll listen to you later.

Read the rest here.

On Facebook, my friend Wesley of Living Within Reason made this critique of a later part of the article:

My disagreement is with your instruction that “if someone tells you they want to end a discussion, respect that. End it. Stop talking to them. Say “Okay!” and stop trying to get the last word in.” Getting the last word is powerful psychologically. When someone is cut off in the middle of an argument without getting to finish their point or answer a counterargument, it can be upsetting and painful (and leave to all kind of intrusive thoughts later). Especially when a conversation is public, I don’t think people have a right to silence the people arguing against them by saying “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” ESPECIALLY when the person ending the conversation makes an argument or presses a point before ending it.

I’ve written before: “If there are any ethical maxims to argumentation, this is one: you can’t both end the argument before it resolves AND have the last word. You have to pick one.” I think that if you want to end the argument, then ethically, you must allow the other person to have the last word. If you then continue the argument afterward, I don’t think there is any reason to blame the other party for answering your final point or wanting to finish their thought.

Most of the time, I see the desire to have the last word characterized as petulant or childish, but I really don’t see it that way. I think it’s a valid thing to want, and I don’t think it’s right to tell people they can’t have it because their opponent says so.

I’d also like to clarify that, of course, there’s a difference between giving a final thought and harassing someone. While I think it’s ok to answer an argument that the other person made, give a summation, or finish a point, it is NOT ok to flood a person with more than one or two tweets after they’ve said they no longer want to talk about it. I’m just talking about a very brief closing, not a bunch of harassing pings trying to goad the person into continuing the argument or calling them a coward or anything like that.

I think this is much closer to what I was trying to articulate, so I endorse it!

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How To Disagree on Twitter
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3 thoughts on “How To Disagree on Twitter

  1. 2

    Somehow I wasn’t able to get involved into this Twitter thing. I registered some time ago, I looked around, I even sent one or two (?) tweets … but then I just felt confused and that was it – that was the end of my adventure with Twitter.

    Nevertheless, most of your points are universal and they concern just as well other types of communication, so I can still say a few words. After reading one of your final remarks – namely, that “If all of this sounds kind of hard, that’s because it is” – I looked again at your points, trying to identify the hardest parts for me. And I opted for 1 and 8.

    Your 1 – figuring out whether I actually want to have a conversation – is a real pain. In my case it’s usually not the problem of “feeling obliged to educate someone” (I hate to think of myself in such terms and I found a simple solution: I just don’t). The burden comes rather with feeling obliged to overcome my passivity, while being passive and doing nothing would be … well, very convenient in many respects. That sort of a problem. Here I wasn’t able to find any simple and satisfactory solution.

    In my experience I find also your 8 – setting boundaries – quite problematic. “You know your own limits when it comes to discussing things with strangers on the Internet”, you say. Well, not exactly. I know pretty well some of my limits but even this required a lot of learning. I learned for example that invectives and slurs are off putting to me. I learned to say goodbye to people who shout “bullshit!” and “dishonest!” every their second word. But still, there are surprises and problems.

    At the moment one of my big unknowns is: how much of a limit is what people do in other situations, particularly those not involving me. Quandaries of the sort: you meet someone who in other situations was doing or saying things which – from your point of view – are absolutely unacceptable. Are you ready to talk to this person or would it be one of your limits? More cautiously: in what types of situations would you be ready to talk? I thought I knew my own answer, but I was wrong. In fact I react instinctively and probably not very consistently.

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