Is Social Media Destroying Rational Debate?

(this post is dedicated to all those I have debated – poorly – on twitter and in blogs)

I must admit that I do enjoy the experience of a good debate, the adrenaline rush, the give and take with a qualified adversary, the thrill of victory and hopefully the expanse of ones views. So often though many of us fall back on cheap tricks, emotional triggers, and framing points of view in extremes or black and white terms – all of which result in polarizing, as opposed to elevating the discussion. This is not a new phenomenon and has been used through the years by some of the most prolific personalities in history. In some cases the result is for the betterment of all and sometimes it is to the detriment of many.

What is new is social media, such as twitter, blogs, facebooks, etc., which provide an excellent mechanism to reach a large population of geographically dispersed people – that is good. Unfortunately the speed at which information is disseminated as well as the lack of detail and time used to build an argument that can facilitate healthy communication is severally impacted in these mediums – that is bad.

I don’t know how many of you have tried to carry on a debate in 140 characters, but it is a poor forum for anything beyond where one should eat dinner and even that can quickly border on contentious if not bounded properly.

Here is an example of a bunch of recent twitter debates (modified slightly and the names have been changed to protect the silly):

Twitter #1: Cloud computing is more secure than legacy approaches, Aurora proves it

Twitter #2: No it doesn’t, all it proves is that systems are vulnerable and security needs improvement

Twitter #1: If it wasn’t for IE and Adobe it wouldn’t have happened, Google Chrome/Gmail/Docs are more secure

Twitter #2: Google Chrome/Gmail/Docs are as susceptible to vulns & exploits as everything else

Twitter #1: No they aren’t and even if they were Cloud has more survivability, look at Haiti

Twitter #2: Haiti? that’s ridiculous, what does that have to do with this?

Twitter #1: LOl – you suck, If Haiti was using cloud then it would be back up, since comms are 1st to return

Twitter #2: Are u really using Haiti to make your point? detour alert!

And it just goes down hill from there…

What comprises rational debate and why is it so difficult in social media formats?

There are many aspects to how one can become a master debater. Probably the most important is that one doesn’t debate alone, but assuming that you have someone willing to engage, which shouldn’t be hard, you should know that unless the following factors are in play the debate will be anti-climatic (this paragraph is purposely dripping with double entendres – but I don’t know why)

Informed: The participants must have an informed basis to participate in the discussion, The fact that someone read something somewhere or saw it on Fox News doesn’t qualify

Open-minded: The participants should be open-minded enough to hear the others points of view. Those that are close-minded generally tend to be single-minded in their approach to a debate and want to ‘win’ as opposed to solve a problem or come to some resolution

Intellectually honest: the participants must be intellectually honest enough to change their point of view when presented with new information. Too often they are too close-minded to consume additional information and if they do, too focused on winning the debate to accept that new informations intent.

When I was in school we used a technique that would help to better enable these disciplines. Once we had chosen (or were assigned) a side to debate, we would research the information and prepare our points. Many times, and we never knew when, we would be asked to switch sides at the last minute. We were asked to argue against the point we had prepared to defend. It was eye opening to have to reframe a view, especially when that perspective had an emotional or deep connection to our personal world view (think death penalty, abortion, the use of the Atom bomb in WWII, etc)

Inherently trying to carrying on a conversation over twitter or in dueling blog posts restricts many of the variables one needs to have a fulfilling discussion. As the example above shows (and you could easily substitue anything for ‘cloud’, ‘secure’, and ‘haiti’) because of the limited speech (140 characters) coupled with a highly distracted, fast-paced environment, it is really difficult to do anything but respond to soundbites and act snarky on twitter.

Blogs are not much different and it is quite easy to get into a flaming blog war, however it has a different variable, which is communication isn’t real-time, in fact it can take days for a response, which severally hinders the back and forth so important to structured conversation.

I have fallen prey to tossing out a sound bite or a snarky response to one-up the other’s point of view, but ultimately I would feel more fulfilled engaging in an interesting and enlightening debate than trying to see how many times I can make others laugh at your expense. The issue isn’t whether social media is appropriate for debate, the issue is how do we maintain rational debate in the face of the frenzied digital formats many find themselves in today.

8 thoughts on “Is Social Media Destroying Rational Debate?

  1. It’s just an extension of Endless September: email, IM, Geocities, and now social media. Everybody has an opinion and a way to express that opinion, only they don’t all follow the same rules for debate.

    Smart people know when to pick up the phone and get it solved in person/realtime instead of playing Internet reindeer games.

  2. Amrit,

    Great post!

    I, too, love *good* debate but that’s not often found on Twitter and the other social media. So, what do do?

    I think we need to set up “Master Debater Meetups” at all of the cons and have James Arlen moderate debate.

    Why don’t you and I face off at Shmoocon and use the topic “The TSA: Evil or Just Amazingly Inept”???


  3. I’m not sure I see how things are all that different from BBSes of yore. People who want to discuss things rationally will (as Rybolov said, they know when to take it to another medium); those who don’t, won’t. I don’t think it matters whether you’re on Usenet, the Well, dueling blogs, IRC, or Twitter. If you have a stupid argument, it’ll be shouted down no matter where you launch it.

    Alternative response:

    @amrittsering: You’re a doodyhead.


  4. @shrdlu

    I knew someone would bring up other forums from the dark ages, like BBS. The difference is the pervasiveness of the new social media forums. I can guarantee CNN never ran a running BBS feed, nor did Tom Waits, Paris Hilton, and Stan Lee even know what a BBS was, but twitter is different in that it is so pervasively used that it is easy for it to be used as a substitute for alternative methods of communication.

    The other issue is that as these new formats grow and their ease of use integrates in all form factors – ever use a BBS from your iPhone? Ever tweet from you iPhone? it enables folks to not look for alternative methods of communication. Yes some will call and discuss intelligently, but I think we have all witnessed many who do not, or who misinterpret something on twitter and never pursue further except to allow the misunderstanding to linger.

    @shrdlu I know =)

  5. Indeed. You can’t have a healthy debate on twitter, just as you can’t have a healthy conversation through text messaging. The favorite unanswerable text message I got was “Why?” Simple, right? Text is good for Yes/No part, but as soon as someone asks “Why”, it becomes an annoyance to answer them.

    What the post doesn’t address is the fundamental of what it means to debate, and why you would want to debate anyway. Fundamentally, the concept behind a debate is that there are some questions which are unanswerable, and that the “winner” is the person who is better at debating. In life, however, it does not work that way.

    If you are trying to resolve a problem, which is usually what you are trying to do in life, the “winner” is the person who can best understand and resolve the other person’s problem.

    When discussing the security of cloud computing versus legacy approaches, there are too many questions to “win” a debate. The only way to win is to understand the problem to resolve, the potential risks involved, and the importance of each risk to the person for whom you are resolving the problem.

    Today, I think most “debates” end with the answer “it depends”, for precisely that reason. Rather than thinking in terms of debate, it’s useful to think in terms of discussions or conversations, which, indeed, are quite difficult to conduct in 140 characters.

  6. Hey Amrit,

    I looked through your blog. Interesting stuff 🙂
    In my experience, when you submerse yourself into the online world and communicate at the speed of technology, it’s a given large chunks of it are missing. I’ve noticed this in virtual social arenas where people meet, fall in online love, get online married, and then get online divorced in a matter of a week. It’s all abbreviated.

    I dropped out of the virtual world for a maybe a few weeks once, and when I returned, the entire community I knew had changed and swapped around. Of course to them, I had been gone eons.

    I’ve heard people that are serious about their Twitter just feel like the world has gone on without them if a day goes by and they haven’t connected.

    It’d be an interesting thing to see how this effects relationships in the long run, comparing them to people that socialize the old-fashioned way.

    Kalin Tyler

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Most Overhyped Technology Terms « Amrit Williams Blog

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