The internet is an odd medium in the sense that it allows anybody to air their opinions, without the fear of face-to-face confrontation or reprisals. Where once you would have risked getting punched or, at the very least, being given a stern talking to if you’d upset someone with your opinions, the internet allows people to remain anonymous, stay safe behind their keyboards, and rage at whatever gets their goat.
In the early days of the internet, this was the exclusive domain of the über-nerd, the internet savvy guy (as they were mostly guys back then) who knew how to mask an IP address on a forum, knew what LOL meant long before text messages were invented and knew that your forum signature should be at least seven lines longer than any of your forum posts. These were professional internet arguers. They understood the platform and they played the game, showing zero respect to any n00bs.
With the creation of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, the less internet savvy took to the net and found they too could voice their opinions and rally against complete strangers. While this may have seemed like a big leap forward in the complaining stakes, it’s merely introduced cannon fodder into the online battlefield.
What do I mean by that?
Well, as someone who has been working within the web development and online marketing field for over 17 years, and using forums for even longer, I’m very much in the ‘internet savvy’ camp. As such, I run, administer and generally keep a lot of different websites ticking over – let’s call them ‘arenas’, where people can interact with each other. This very weekend I received several messages via one of these arenas, a Facebook group as it happens, from people who wanted to post a link to their petition.
The fact they messaged and asked someone listed as the admin, rather than simply posted it, showed a distinct lack of understanding of how the immediacy of the internet works. Just post it. If it’s not OK, someone will remove it. As it so happened, the petition they wanted to post a link to was in direct contrast to the purpose of the group, and the very message of the petition was likely to, and did, enrage everyone in it.
I knew this from their message, but I didn’t reply. These things run and moderate themselves. I knew exactly what would happen if they posted it. In truth, it’s what I wanted to happen. A heated debate caused by a direct conflict of opposing opinions will always generate discussion, interaction and an influx of new members from other groups who all want to wade into the argument to support one side or the other.
Sure enough, I returned home from the weekend away to find more messages, reported posts and a big surge in membership. All the boxes ticked in my opinion. It wasn’t, however, as gratefully received by the two people who wanted to post the petition in the first place. They were horrified by the response, and eventually deleted their post and, subsequently, all of the follow-up comments. They had expected to post the link to their petition and have people say ‘thanks’ before following the link to sign it, even though it was a very polarising opinion in a group full of people who vehemently oppose that opinion.
What these two people had done was spectacularly fail to understand how the internet works. By going around Facebook, finding different groups and posting your opinions, you’re not going to find unbridled support from everyone you meet. Some people will disagree with you. Some people will passionately disagree with you. What’s more, if someone does disagree with you, you’re not going to change their mind by continuing to argue the case on Facebook. You’re only going to make the situation worse, and draw in more people to the argument. Eventually it will get out of hand and someone will start posting threats, screenshots of your profile (including any information you’ve left public, which may include your phone number) and they’ll mention Hitler.
All internet arguments eventually mention Hitler – it’s how you know the argument has reached the point of no return.
The problem is that the internet went through this phase around two decades ago. Forums allowed people to argue, insult and threaten each other long before Facebook or Twitter ever existed. Forums, however, were used by people who understood internet conventions. They knew what would happen, and how discussions would evolve. Forums were moderated by people who REALLY understood the internet, and they knew how to deal with them. Deleting a thread because someone made a post in the thread wasn’t something that would happen. Yet, with Facebook, this does happen. It happens because many of the people who use Facebook groups have never used forums. The people who are admins of Facebook groups have never moderated a forum before. They’re not internet savvy and, as such, discussions get out of hand fast, and good discussions get deleted because someone didn’t know how to handle it.
Facebook really isn’t the place to have a discussion, and you should stay far away from any arguments. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind, you’re not going to make anyone understand your point of view and, eventually, someone’s going to mention Hitler.
You may ask “what’s the point of running a contentious Facebook group if you can’t have a proper discussion in one?” Well, that’s a story for another time.