Talking Online

You probably know by now that I love talking online. Lot’s of people think that online conversation, particularly when it’s text based, is somehow inferior to face-to-face. For me, and I think for many others, that is not always the case. There are lots of positives for talking online; time to think, being able to be succinct, deeply personal sharing, less pressure, connecting across differences – to name but a few.

Image: Person shouting at a laptop.

Sometimes, talking online is difficult though, particularly when it comes to debate. People tend to say what they think online, and sometimes it isn’t easy to read the tone of short comments. The Churspacious Community, though, seems to have managed to talk really well online, so we decided to start asking questions about why it’s sometimes harder to agree to disagree online outside of our safe space. Here are some of the themes that came up.

Image: Three monkeys. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

When posting online, we express ourselves mainly in words (and sometimes images). We don’t have the benefit of intonation and body language. Some people find it really hard to understand intonation and read body language and find avoiding it really helpful. It can be frustrating, though, if someone misunderstands you because not being able read your intonation or body language in a post removes some of the emotional nuance.

How to overcome this? Perhaps it’s about saying what we mean and assuming that others are doing likewise. Try, when you are writing a post, to imagine all of the different emotions that someone might read into it. Try, when you are reading a post, to avoid reading in emotional intent that is not in the words.

Image: Person reaching for help behind a screen.

When we communicate online, we are isolated from the person we are talking to; we are not in the same physical space as them. It can be helpful to communicate online with people you are not able to be in the same place as physically. It can also enable conversation around difficult topics or very personal feelings that aren’t always easy to bring up face to face; the sorts of things you might have talked about with the lights off in your teenage sleepovers or after dark with a new partner.

Isolation can, however, also dehumanise our conversation partner. We stop seeing each-other as people and start to see each-other as disembodied opinions. We don’t see, or have to respond to, the emotions that our words may trigger. This sometimes means that people don’t think as much about being kind when communicating. Try, when you are writing or reading a post, to think about the person you are writing to and consider how they might feel about the topic you are discussing. Be kind; treat each-other gently; every human being is precious and delicate.

Image: Three identical men wearing suits and vendetta masks.

Our social media communities are often largely comprised of chosen family and friends. The selective nature of social media means that we often end up in ‘bubbles’ with people who we assume view the world in a very similar way to our own understandings. This can mean that we get very used to – even rely on – affirmation of things that we share on social media. This can be massively important and it’s value should not be underrated. Many people who are making a massive difference to the world have felt empowered to do so because of the support they receive on social media. Supportive social media can be a vital support of a person’s discipleship and missional outreach.

However, this does mean that when someone disagrees, or seems to disagree, with us online it can be a surprise and a bit of a blow. We can feel really hurt. We can also feel the need to either change that person’s mind or to remove them from our bubble. Sometimes the latter can be the right thing to do; safe space is important. Disagreement, though, is good and it is ok to agree to disagree. Perhaps we should try especially to remember that when we talk online. It is ok to have strong opinions, it is also ok to change those opinions because you’ve learnt something new, and it is also ok for others to have different opinions.

Social media posts and comments are often really small, but are often used to discuss massive, nuanced topics. This does enable people to engage with lots of different topics and opinions really quickly. This can mean, though, that it is difficult for someone to express their full view in a post or comment. It is helpful to remember that a comment or post will always be partial, and that we can ask questions to help us to understand what someone meant without attacking or arguing about what we think their view is.

Debate can feel like a game. There is a reason that debating societies are really popular. Social media is really good at game-ifying debate. In other words, we often slip into using our comments to score points against different views. Why? Because social media keeps score for us! ‘Likes’, ‘loves’ and other ‘reacts’ are an intentionally game-ifying tool that social media companies use to keep us engaged. They want us to compete against each-other for the most positive reaction because that makes us feel good, makes us stay online, makes us respond to adds, and ultimately makes these companies more money.

Should you avoid reacting to fight against the system? Of course not. As already mentioned, positive social media feedback can be really helpful for people and give them a sense of worth. In a world that often treats people as disposable, surely that is valuable? What is important, though, is to remember that the value of people’s opinion of you is limited. We are all equally created and loved. If people disagree with us, it doesn’t have to effect us. If it does, perhaps some deeper probing and exploration of the bigger causes of that hurt could be helpful.

Difficult face-to-face conversations end. We politely make our excuses and leave. Or, we storm out. Either way, they end. Sometimes, a bit like this post (!) online conversations can feel endless. Some people find it really hard to know when to stop, particularly if they are passionate about the topic being debated. It can be helpful, if a debate is getting out of hand, to ask contributors/those commenting to stop.

Phrases like ‘let’s agree to disagree’ can be really helpful here. Unfortunately, they can also be heard as another type of point scoring. Let’s take each-other at our word. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t mean that one person has ‘won’ the debate and another has ‘lost’. It simply means that this conversation has ended, and we can continue our online relationship safely and healthily, perhaps with some new boundaries or norms. If we are never going to agree, is there really any purpose to continuing a debate?

Last one, phew! Injustice. Online debate can be a way to right wrongs, to deal with injustice. Debate is not always bad, and unheard voices should not be silenced. Moderators should try to ensure that oppressive or privileged voices are not over-determining the direction of conversations. Safe space rules should be in place.

A good rule-of-thumb for online conversations is that people shouldn’t speak over lived experience, particularly the lived experiences of minorities or marginalised/oppressed people. If a gay person, for example, explains something explains how a post is heard from a lived gay perspective, they should not be shouted down by a heterosexual person. If a trans person explains how a post is heard from a lived trans perspective, they should not be shouted down by a cis person. If an autistic person explains how a post is heard from a lived autistic perspective, they should not be shouted down by a neurotypical person. If a woman explains how a post is heard from a lived female perspective, they should not be shouted down by a man.

This does not mean that every person who shares an identity characteristic will share the same views; and there might be intra-characteristic debate. The problems start when someone who does not share an identity characteristic tries to speak for those who do.

Important: If someone is being abusive or oppressive online they should be informed and asked to change their behaviour. If that behaviour does not change, they should be removed from the online forum. This is often best dealt with by a moderator though, not through open, public debate.

Our Churspacious community has a lot of experience and wisdom to share about talking online. We’d love to continue to share with, and learn from, each-other and from new members. For more information about Churspacious have a look at our homepage. If you would like to join us, search for ‘Churspacious’ on Facebook.

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