It’s inevitable. You put a billion humans together in a social network, there are gonna be a few digital punches thrown. I’ve gotten into fights on Facebook. I’ve done it well, and I’ve done it really, really poorly. If you’re in a Facebook situation and you’ve decided you’re more Michael Jackson in “Bad” than Michael Jackson in “Beat It,” then, here are my fightin’ words for you:
- Know thine opponent. C’mon, it’s Facebook, and you probably know this person, where is this conversation going to go? (And if you don’t know this person, why are you arguing with them on Facebook in the first place? Is it even a real person?) In Judaism, we have the concept of argument “l’shem shamayim” - for the sake of Heaven. Basically, ask yourself, is it worth it to even reply in the first place? Is it worth engaging this person?
- Remember it’s public. I don’t add this caveat to dissuade argument, actually. This might actually be a really good reason to get into a Facebook fight in the first place. Do other people need to see this? Who? Why?
- Remember it’s permanent. I like to think of the things we post online as our digital fingerprint as opposed to our digital footprint. Our online actions don’t follow us, they accumulate, become part of our identity, and live in the RIGHT NOW…forever. When someone - your mom, a current boss, a future employer, CNN - Googles your name, what do you want them to see?
- Breathe before you type. Social media moves really fast, and it’s easy to get sucked in. But one of the advantages of social media platforms is that you can put a pause between your fingertips/thumbs and the keys before you post. Use that pause to breathe.
- Don’t post over mobile. Be honest: you’re doing something else. You’re going to spell things wrong and look silly. You’re going to hit send before you’re ready to and regret it. Just don’t have a Facebook fight over mobile.
- Remember you can’t convey tone in text. Your snark and sarcasm may be very clever in person. That backhanded compliment may play well in a bar. That moment of dripping, saccharine sweetness may come off well over the phone. But this is text, baby, and there’s no guarantee you’re be “heard” the way you imagined.
- When in doubt, get a second opinion. Not sure you should respond at all? Not sure your response is clear? Thinking that picture or video or gif that really brings the point home might be a bit too much? Ask someone you trust. And not your friend who always agrees with you. That other person.
And finally, don’t feel bad if you decide you duck out and end the conversation. Again, you’re still Michael Jackson, and you are still cool (well, I think you’re cool).
My great uncle is a brilliant and kind man who reads anything and everything he can get his hands on, then recaps it with such articulate precision and grace you’d think he’d done his doctorate on that book. And he seeks out information on subjects with which he has zero familiarity in order to be able to make connections across disciplines, and play with those connections the way most of us twiddle with our phones until something cool happens.
“I like to read people I disagree with,” he once told me. I asked him what he was currently reading. It was Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith.” My uncle is one of the most devout atheists I know, so I asked him, “Then why are you reading Harris?”
“I want to see if his arguments are the same as mine,” he replied.
I don’t think I will ever see my uncle pick up a copy of something by Heschel or Augustine or any theological thinker talking about faith. Even this wildly knowledgeable seeker, at heart - just like me, just like any of us - craves validation. It sounds like something Stephen Colbert would say, but we want to hear other people say what we think.
At yesterday’s Jewish Futures Conference, I was re-introduced to the term “confirmation bias,” or people’s tendency to seek out information or hypotheses that confirm what we already believe to be true about the world. I heard this term and was struck to the bones. Because I am guilty, guilty, guilty.
To be fair, confirmation bias is not always a bad thing. There’s often good reason to surround yourself with supportive voices. That’s part of what builds community. That’s what gets people through hard times. That’s what makes us feel safe. All good things.
But there’s real danger in confirmation bias: one can fall subject to the tyranny of homophily.
Homophily is a term that comes out of network theory which essentially means “birds of a feather flock together.” Like (-minded) people tend to group together. And then you end up with situations like this.
This is a network map of the political blogosphere from several years ago, indicating which blogs representing which parties linked (literally and metaphorically) to one another.
See the problem? These blogs, theoretically representative of the political conversation in the country writ large, aren’t breaking out of their echo chambers. They suffer from a bad case of homophily, and therefore confirmation bias, and the conversation becomes increasingly polarized.
The danger of confirmation bias is not just in governing a ridiculously diverse country that needs every voice to engage with one another, but in spurring innovation. As I see it, there are three basic definitions of innovation: 1) something entirely new that’s never existed before (“good luck with that,” says Kohelet); 2) something that already exists put into a new context (for instance, the movie Aliens was pitched as “Jaws in space”), and 3) two old ideas put together to make something new (“drive-through” + “bank” = drive through banking).
So, what happens when those two old ideas never get a chance to meet? Or we don’t learn about other contexts, and can’t drag those ideas into our own, or share ours with others?
Nothing. The stifling tyranny of homophily. We curl in on ourselves and begin to wither.
Breaking out of confirmation bias is hard, and scary. It leaves us raw and vulnerable. But, I’m learning, that’s what makes humans who we are.
My baby is about four months old right now, and trying and failing and learning all kinds of things. It’s thrilling, but it can also be dangerous for him. He’s really, really vulnerable and needs lots of love and attention to help him navigate this big crazy world my husband and I brought him into. But if he had been born and, like many other animals, could already walk and feed himself and do everything he needed to do to survive, he would never learn how to learn. And that’s what makes us different. That’s what makes us human.
Breaking out of confirmation bias and resisting homophily means we have to make ourselves more like my son. Learning to learn, learning to unlearn. Being more curious, and more foolish, perhaps. Being unabashedly braver through embracing our own vulnerability.
I’m not sure it’s something I’m ready to do - it’s much more comfortable to stick with what I know and hear from people who make me feel good about that - but I know it’s something I need to do, because that’s how things change and get better. The question now is how.
The Web is visual. Text is conversational. So how do we make our text more expressive? How do we make text look - “sound” - like we talk?
Here are a few thoughts - certainly not exhaustive - based on what I’ve seen from the pros:
- Capitalization: WHEN EVERYTHING IS CAPITALIZED, PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE SHOUTING AT THEM. But when you selectively use capitalization to CALL OUT specific ideas, it can really help DRAW ATTENTION to the jist of your message.
likewise, writing in all lower-case gives you that e.e. cummings vibe - perhaps you’re being quiet, or inconspicuous, or subversively powerful…
- Using another language, usually italicized: Throwing in some French, Yiddish, Pig Latin, or heck, coding language can really bring life and personality to your text. Check out the example in the picture for a delightfully snarky example, si vous voulez.
- Spacing: Extra space within and between words and lines can really change the way someone reads your text. Online, at least, it also changes the way you engage with the page.
Forcing the reader to scroll
and reveal your next thought
a little bit at a time.
F o r
r e a l.
- Drawing with text: Think of the letters on your keyboard as an artist’s palette and say it with pictures.
How do you make your text more expressive? How do these ideas resonate with you? Good ideas, gimmicks?