Imagine you're at a dinner party, and you're getting into a heated argument. As you start yelling, the other people quickly hush their voices and start glaring at you. None of the onlookers have to take further action—it's clear from their facial expressions that you're being a jerk.
In digital conversations, giving feedback requires more conscious effort. Silence is the default. Participants only get feedback from people who join the fray. They receive no signal about how the silent onlookers perceive their dialogue. In fact, they don't receive much signal that onlookers observed the conversation at all.1
As a result, the feedback you do receive in digital conversations is more polarized, because the only people who will engage are those who are willing to take that extra step and bear that cost of wading into a messy conversation.
When Angry Alice tweets something obnoxious or unproductive, reasonable people just scroll past it. If Alice develops a pattern of bad behavior, reasonable people will just unfollow, mute, or block her. The result is that it's hard for Alice to notice the silent majority of people who saw the trash fire and walked away when they recognized that engaging would only fuel its flames.
It gets worse—Angry Alice only sees feedback from extremists, so she doesn't receive more nuanced signals that might actually cause her to reflect on her behavior. If no reasonable people give feedback, only the unreasonable people are left. From Alice's perspective, the only people who disagree with her are jerks.
This is a coordination problem. Reasonable people understand that if they join the fray alone, they'll most likely be drowned out by the yelling, or worse they'll get dragged deeper into it. As a result, they choose stay out of it.
A huge part of the problem is that digital spaces generally have no equivalent of a disapproving glare. You're stuck choosing between staying silent and entering the fray, with few options in between. If you have little reason to believe that other reasonable people will back you up, you're going to stick with the default: silence.
This is a hard problem to solve, but it's not impossible. You can break the coordination trap! 2
For example, I often send friendly DMs to combatants to share my perspective on how they could make combative Twitter threads more productive.
This works far better than you'd expect! In the last few years, I've DMed at least a dozen people who were being unreasonable or mean on Twitter. In all cases but one, it resulted in a constructive conversation between me and that person. In most cases, that in turn led to a retraction of their original tweet, a clarification of their position, or a marked improvement in subsequent discourse.
Four things I've found that make this approach more likely to succeed:
- You must show the person that you're not trying to attack them but to make them more effective. You're giving them feedback on process, not a moral lecture.
- Bringing it into a private space like DMs is crucial, because it credibly shows that you're not trying to get brownie points from your in-group by bashing them in public.
- This works better if the conversation at hand is in a thread you yourself started. It's a bit like giving feedback to someone at a party you're hosting—they're more likely to respect your boundaries in a social space you created. This is not a requirement, but it helps.
- Make sure you're not dealing with a grifter. A grifter is someone who benefits from perpetuating the problem and has no actual desire to solve it (despite their rhetoric that may say otherwise). If they're a grifter, all the above advice is useless. Get away from the trash fire as fast as you can.
I should note, this is a lot of work. There's a reason I've only done it about a dozen times over the last few years, even though there have been far, far more opportunities to do so.
But if everyone tried this method just a few times a year, then we just might break through this silence and raise the quality of our digital discourse.
Thanks to Sebastián Bensusan and John Backus for reading and providing feedback on drafts of this essay.
2 Although this post is focused on how you as an individual can make a difference one conversation at a time, I'm even more excited about the structural opportunity that platforms have to enable users to express disapproval more subtly. One idea I'd really like to see platforms like Twitter or Reddit try is to provide a mechanism for low-friction, private, negative feedback. For example, you could imagine offering a button where you can downvote or thumbs-down content (i.e. the opposite of a Like), but the count is only visible to the OP and not to anyone else. EDIT 7/4/2020: My friend Zooko evolved this idea slightly, and I dig the suggestion: "Imagine a "ಠ_ಠ" button on each tweet. The poster finds out how many people *THAT THEY FOLLOW* clicked that button, but can't find out specifically who. They just know that the crowd of people *that they respect* has a certain air of disapproval."
3 Of course the downside of this approach is that you don't get the opportunity to spread these norms to onlookers of the conversation. This is not always the right tradeoff! Public feedback can help onlookers understand reasons why they should not admire that behavior. But doing it privately makes it much more likely that that particular person will actually change their behavior, which is what I'm optimizing for in these cases.