For years, we’ve all been trying to quit Facebook. Science tells us we should, and maybe some of us even managed to do so — at least until the pandemic dragged us back as all regular social interaction, not to mention church services and Zumba classes, moved online. Even if you can’t quite quit Facebook there’s an easy way to make your experience on it — and almost anywhere else on online, for that matter — a little bit better.
If you’re guessing it involves comments, well, this clearly isn’t your first day on the internet. For years, the sage advice of the Extremely Online has been “never read the comments,” but lately I’ve been living according to an edict that might be even more important: Never leave the comment. You can type it, but you definitely should delete it before you actually post it.
Particularly during the pandemic — but also since Timeline immemorial — commenting on social media has gotten ugly. Yesterday, The Atlantic posited that an ongoing feud between pro-mask and anti-mask groups in North Carolina is emblematic of a new COVID-related front in the online culture wars, but you probably don’t need the media to point out any examples when a stroll through your own feed will do just fine.
Yesterday I got into it with a “friend” of a friend from high school — someone I’ve never met who knows someone I haven’t spoken to in person for more than 20 years — who was telling people expressing concerns about schools reopening in the fall that they are “living in fear” of a virus with a “99.9 per cent survival rate” and that “case counts are inflated, something bigger is going on here.” The comments were so inflammatory — to me — that I broke my social media rule, left a comment, and spent the next few hours regretting it.
Here’s the thing: Leaving that Facebook comment felt good… for a minute. I knew I was right and that she was wrong and I had the facts to prove it. Unfortunately, she felt the same way about me, and proceeded to respond again, using her own (in my view) misrepresented and trumped up facts (no pun intended) to support her argument. Ten comments later, I was in a bad mood and regretted the whole thing. And needless to say, no minds were opened and no common ground was found.
What I should’ve done — what I endeavour to always do — is to have typed out my incensed-but-well-reasoned response, let it sit for 10 seconds, and then deleted it before hitting “return.” This is surprisingly effective. I get the same satisfaction of outlining my argument and pointing out all the reasons the other person is wrong, but I don’t have to deal with the negative consequences — i.e. the inevitable back-and-forth that, at best, will end with us agreeing to disagree, and at worst, will turn into a time-wasting pile-on, the stress of which I’ll carry into the offline world.
Maybe you’re ready to argue that if we don’t correct misinformation we encounter online, things will only get worse — I can see you readying your commenting fingers. But the thing is, there’s a lot of evidence that online arguments are never worthwhile. A recent study by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago (reported on by Southern Living) suggests that the dehumanising aspects of online communication make it particularly difficult for us to view opinions we disagree with as coming from a fellow “capable human being.” In contrast to debating someone in person, arguing online causes us to view those we are fighting with — often no more than unfamiliar names and tiny profile pictures, perhaps covered in American flags — as “relatively mindless,” per the study. Notes Southern Living:
[The study] asked 300 volunteers to read, watch a video, or listen to arguments about controversial topics… [then] answer questions about the opinions they disagreed with. When they read the differing opinions, the participants were completely dismissive of opposing opinions, characterising them as “uninformed or heartless.” When they heard or saw someone voice an opinion they disagreed with they were kinder and gentler in their response.
Search your feelings, you know this to be true. Arguing online sucks. Stopping it cold turkey is hard, and the “type-then-delete” strategy might be the methadone you need to avoid getting embroiled in another all-out flame war. And this doesn’t just apply to Facebook; arguing anywhere online is equally fruitless, from Facebook, to Twitter, to the comments section of that blog post that just pissed you off. You should stop. We all should stop.