Thursday, December 29, 2022

Before You Comment

Some thoughts on nuanced thinking and effective communication, especially on what they call social media.

Pete Seeger was well-known in certain circles for replying to every letter he received in the mail.  He didn't have an email account as far as I know, and although he was still alive and kicking by the time Facebook was ubiquitous, he never got on it as far as I know.  Noam Chomsky is very much still with us, does do email, and is also famous for replying to all his emails, though as far as I know, he's never gotten onto the corporate social media platforms. 

They're so much more famous than me, and I honestly have no idea how they do it.  Or perhaps I do know, and the answer is they're not trying to communicate with their friends and comrades or with the general public on platforms like Facebook or, especially, Reddit.  Perhaps you're not on Reddit, either.  Most people aren't, but 1 out of 3 young adults are.  I don't know how many people read my essays posted there, but it's a very significant platform for disseminating such content if you know a little about how to navigate the Reddit landscape.

OK, really, keeping up with my email isn't a problem.  But even attempting to participate in many of the conversations that my essays provoke among the few thousand people out there who seem to be reading them regularly is very challenging.  I want to encourage people, answer questions, and I'm genuinely interested in other points of view that disagree with mine.  And of course it's always nice to read the praise, and as folks on Facebook tend to know, commenting on a post tends to push it up in the algorithms, so more people might see it.

I know that some people will just use a post as a springboard to have a conversation or an argument with whoever is out there, and it's not even directed at me, in particular.  Other times people are looking to engage with me on the subject at hand.  I don't know how it is for all the other folks out there who publish essays and have a few thousand readers, but I'd be very curious to know about how it is for them.  What I do know is what it's like for me, and to the extent that this information might be helpful for anyone else, I thought I'd share some thoughts on social media and communicating.

The first thing I'd like people to know before they comment on a post, if they don't have ill intent, is to be aware that some people out there do have ill intent.  Reddit is not a safe space.  As useful as the platform is for communicating with like-minded people and for sharing information, the platform is full of toxic trolling behavior on the part of some users, and the volunteer moderators are generally too busy to deal with this problem effectively.

So, when I'm posting something on Reddit, I'm both hopeful that it will hit a nerve in a positive way in the community in which I'm posting, as with on Facebook and other platforms, and I'm simultaneously attempting to prepare myself for the inevitable snarky digs from people with handles like JoeHillbilly and SheepShaggingFarmer.  If you want to read the constructive commentary, you have to see those comments, too, there's no way around it.

When one is trying to steel oneself to not be too put off by the horrible stuff some people say ad nauseum on these platforms, it tends to instill a general feeling of hyper-alertness to the next toxic comment, among people like me.  So if someone who is perfectly well-intended wants to make a joke that is open to interpretation, they can be sure that I'll be likely to interpret it in the darkest sense possible, and if it can be interpreted as an insult, I'll take it as one.

Toxic trolls and misunderstood attempts at humor aside, the intended audience for these thoughts here are the folks who want to engage in real, serious, critical dialogue on Reddit or Facebook, in the comment section after a post.

The first thing I wonder is why do it at all?  By posting something serious or critical that seeks to start a dialog in a comment thread, you are inviting not only other serious people to discuss something with you, but you are also inviting the trolls, inevitably.  Of the more serious people wanting to discuss something, some will have read the essay, others will have only seen the subject line, and there's very little common ground involved either way.  This is not a room full of actual people, all having the same conversation.  That is an illusion we create in our minds.  Some of these people commenting have ill intent.  Others may be bots.  Do we really want to try to have a sensible conversation with trolls and bots?  That's what we're doing, like it or not, by trying to have a discussion in such a forum, and I find it just doesn't work, and it's also maddening.

For real communication, direct messages are better.  If you just want to grandstand in a public comment section and you're not really trying to engage in dialog, that's another matter.  But if real dialog is desired, the comments section isn't where that is going to happen successfully, most of the time, from my experience.

But either way, whether it's a public comment or a direct message, I have more free advice on how to do this effectively.  

What I find most common among the folks who have critical things to say about something I've written is they don't understand what I'm really saying, and based on a misunderstanding of what I'm saying, they share with me their feedback on that misunderstanding of what I'm saying.

Avoiding this kind of thing isn't so hard, but it requires a bit of intellectual vigor, which I think everyone is capable of.  The first thing to do, if you think an author is saying something that you disagree with, is find a quote where the author is saying what you think they are saying.  If you can't find anything anywhere in the whole piece that illustrates the point the author is making that you're disagreeing with, consider the possibility that what you think the author is implying may not be what the author thinks they are implying.  Instead of assuming you understand what is being implied, despite the lack of anything you can quote that supports your assumption, and then responding to what you think the author is implying, just ask a question.  "It sounds like you're implying this, though you don't say it directly.  Is this true?"  Then wait for a response.

One of the main reasons it's so useful to take the time to find an actual quote from a writer that illustrates the point you think the writer is making (which you think you disagree with), is that the writer may not in fact be making the point you think they are making.  You may be simplifying the point they're making, for whatever reason.  You may be turning their nuanced perspective into something more black-and-white, known in some circles as setting up a strawman.  As maddening as nuanced perspectives can be, they may not fit neatly into someone else's ideological schema.  

Some examples of the sorts of things that come up often for me are people who seem to be under the impression that criticizing US foreign policy implies some kind of blanket support for all of the enemies of the US, or that being interested in public dialog with people from the right implies that someone agrees with the rightwing narrative.

The type of thinking that these kinds of assumptions illustrate is simplistic, and dangerous.  Nuanced thinking is much more reflective of reality, and therefore better.  I highly recommend it, whenever you're communicating in any forum.  We won't change the awful algorithms or eliminate the toxic trolls with nuanced thinking, but if it caught on, it could be a really great step in the right (left) direction.

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