(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.