Sunday, 27 November 2016

Time to start reading the comments

One of the common trends in internet advice goes as follows: Don't read the comments. Don't worry about the comments. Don't feed the trolls. Some people aren't just worth the time.

And then came the events of 2016 and the common question is: "How did this happen?" Even the people who are OK with the political outcomes this year are surprised by it. Somewhere along the way our communications have broken down.

There's been a lot of focus on the media's role in this, but on a personal level, it's made me re-analyse the way we use and advise each other to use the internet. We use social media to spread our message, but we're avoiding—in some cases, actively blocking—the messages we disagree with. We encourage each other to talk but not to listen.

Obviously, I'm generalising here... there is a difference between an alternative point of view rationally presented and trolling. But when it comes to trolling, we've all been generalising because there is also a difference between trolling and somebody with an alternative point of view losing their temper.

A few years ago, I went on a podcast and talked, among other things, a bit about my views on gender issues. Afterwards, a listener tweeted the following at me: "Please stop cockblocking Rob's podcast with your nonsense about male bias."

I replied frostily, and then something happened which is not supposed to be possible on the internet: the conversation de-escalated. We talked through our differences, exchanged constructive criticism and parted ways with a cordial, "Cheers."

I can't say if I changed his attitude on anything at all, but I learned a lot from that series of tweets. Most notably, I've never since been afraid to engage with hostile commenters, and by now, I've got a few ground-rules in place for those confrontations.

 Don't Attack

We often say that trolls forget that there is a real person on the other end of the screen, but that's exactly what we're doing every time we dismiss somebody else as a troll. We're dismissing this person and the experiences that have led them to their perspective, in favor of demonising them, saying their opinion doesn't count.

Clearly, some people genuinely are trolls, arguing for the sake of insulting you. I usually start with a couple of bland responses to see if there's any depth to their accusations. If there isn't, I leave it be, and no harm done. If there is, I'll pursue it further.

What I try (and rarely succeed at) is to argue the point without diminishing the other person's point of view. I might think they're wrong, but I usually don't think they're a bad person, an idiot or a bigot. (I get bogged down in disclaimers a lot, trying to make that clear.) If I do catch myself judging somebody personally, I'm probably too angry to have that discussion, and that's when I should walk away from the keyboard. Sometimes I don't. Then I regret it, later.

Don't Defend

Not just on the internet, but in general, there are three common assertions that I never, ever say:
  1. I am a nice person.
  2. I am not a racist/sexist/homophobe.
  3. I am a strong, independent woman.  (OK, so only about half the population says this one.)
I don't like these statements because they're so sweeping that they require too many disclaimers to actually be meaningful; Everybody is selfish sometimes, everybody is capable of prejudiced behavior, everybody has moments of weakness.

If you find yourself saying one of the above, then you're almost certainly in defence mode. Getting defensive easily is a bad habit of mine and I try and guard against it because I'm too familiar with the drawbacks: I am taking things personally, which makes it impossible for me to be objective; I am making the subject about me, which means I'm probably missing the real point.

For all of those statements, I try and take the classic writers' advice: show, don't tell. Odds are high that the person I am talking to isn't interested in making those judgments about me. They're even higher that if they have made those judgments about me, I can still learn something from talking to them.

 Nobody Wins Arguments

Scoring points in arguments is a bit of a fiction, in my opinion. Most of the time both sides come off thinking they were the victor, and if you do believe you've lost, you probably haven't changed your view... you just want to find a way to argue it better.

The real point is not to 'argue', but to 'communicate'. It's not about who wins and who loses. It's not even about changing minds, necessarily. It's about understanding that alternative point of view.

Remember my de-escalating twitter argument? The one that started off with cock-blocking? The turning point in that argument came with this tweet: "I think we're talking about two different things here, Sarah. I'm talking about your approach, not your viewpoint."

He had singled out our point of disagreement, and once we knew that, it was easier for us to understand each other's perspectives.

So when I argue with my friends or engage the anonymous and hostile, in my own clumsy way I'm trying to find our point of disagreement: where is it that our perspectives diverge and why? I don't always succeed, and it's even more common that the other person isn't interested in finding it, but when I do find it, I learn something every time.

Keep a Balance

Obviously, this is easy practice for a small scale internet writer. For people with a bigger social media presence, there's too much to engage with and the hostility can be considerably worse. The emotional stress of that hostility isn't necessarily something you can just walk away from, either. So, everything in moderation and do what works for you.

Yet if you have the opportunity to be open, take it and see what you can learn rather than what you can teach. It seems that these days we all need to be a little wiser.