I am choosing to write a blog post on constructive online discourse. Do I think it is something that is possible? Do I think I can change someone’s mind, or they can change mine?
I think this is a difficult topic, and though I don’t like to say “no, never” to pretty much anything, I do think that I have an opinion that can go both ways on this topic. I have two points or reasons that I think both describe why online discourse is possible, and also why it is not. Both of my reasons work for either argument, and this is why I find that I don’t have a definite concrete answer.
Wait Time as a Positive
In online spaces, you have more time to respond to questions. Dialogue is not immediate, most of the time you are typing to someone to respond to a question or a comment, and so you have more time to stop, think, and reflect on your answer. You have a change to read over what you are saying, to have other people look it over, and to edit what you said. If you were in public, or face-to-face with a person, your first instinct, or your first message would be the one you would convey. Often, I’ve found, I heavily edit my first crack at anything, so I think having that opportunity for wait time means that you can ensure that what you are sending out is what you want to send out. You have that chance to pause.
Wait Time as a Negative
When you have that time to wait, that time to pause, it can also help you distance or detach yourself from the discourse. It means that you can use space and time to lessen the impact of someone’s words, or to become impassive to what they had to say to you. When you are in a conversation face-to-face, you have less time to respond, you are looking at the person directly, or hearing them directly, so you don’t have any distance from their feelings or their emotions. This can be a good thing, but I think it’s a bigger negative in online discourse because then it means that the feelings behind a person’s post to you can be ignored for a long time before you respond, thus making you less attached to the argument, or to their side of the story.
I also think it’s a negative because, while you can have more time to reflect, you can also have more time to become more scathing or detached in your reply, so your answer or response is not more understanding, but is instead more cruel. And then once it is posted, you can’t take it back in the same way you can take back words. You can backpedal and apologize, just as you can in real life, but there is more of a permanence to your mistakes – someone can have a copy of them forever, so you can always regret them or apologize, but someone may be more unwilling to forgive with tangible evidence of your regretted post. That being said, I think that is unfortunate, because I do believe people can change and should be given an opportunity to grow as a person. I know that I had some opinions in my life that I definitely don’t agree with now, because we are not a static image, we are constantly learning and changing. But the internet can have that permanence that is harmful.
Intent as a Positive
In online space there is a little bit of removal, as I’ve said before, between you and the person you are talking to. That removal can then mean that a debate can be less emotional or personal because you have space. It also means that you can be calm and rational in your responses, you can’t read the exact amount of anger from somone, and so both people, or multiple people can have a chance to have a non-aggressive conversation.
Of course, this is fine in theory, not so much in practice. I don’t often see this one acted out, but I do know for me, I can come across more calm and collected online, provided I don’t TYPE IN ALL CAPS FOR NO REASON and so I have a chance to have a calmer discussion.
Intent as a Negative
It is also a negative, because you can’t always tell what someone is meaning, or what their intent is. So you may read something as sarcastic when it wasn’t, or as an aggressive attack when it was unintended. As well, sometimes something doesn’t read the way you want it to (commas are important, people) and so someone may take it in entirely the wrong way. I know many times I’ve fought with my sister over text or on Skype because I can’t tell if she’s actually mad or just kidding, and then I get actually mad, and she thinks I’m just kidding, and it’s a mess all around, really, I shouldn’t be allowed to converse with people.
Sorry for the text dump, this is honestly all I really have to say on the matter. I don’t think that conversation and constructive dialogue is impossible online, I think it is better in some ways and worse in some ways than face-to-face dialogues. Online comes with its own unique set of strengths and problems. But I think that changing someone’s mind is difficult in any space. If I want to, I can ignore anything someone says because I don’t care enough to listen. There are only like, three people in my life who can change my mind (my best friend is seriously my favourite person because we will debate and both respect and listen to each other’s opinions all while simultaneously yell-talking, so everyone thinks we are having an awful fight, when we are actually just agreeing angrily), but that doesn’t mean that I am unwilling to respect other people’s opinions. I am an inherently passive person, which I sometimes think is a lie because I am so loud I think I must be aggressive, and so I am less likely to shut someone down. But that doesn’t mean I am then going to listen to someone and agree with them.
I have my opinions for a reason. I have them because I believe in them and I think they are right. Why would I have an opinion that I think it wrong? Someday I may think the opinion I had was wrong, but that conviction in my feelings makes it difficult to change. Often, challenge makes us more defensive rather than willing to listen.
Sorry, that was a ramble, tl;dr, opinions are hard to change, online or not, but I don’t think it’s impossible depending on the circumstances and people involved.