Let’s talk about the kind of communication we want to have.
In person communications have always been fraught with difficulty, misunderstandings, miscommunications, negative escalations, and conflicts. When people talk with each other face-to-face there is always the opportunity for confusion and conflict, particularly if the conversation in question is questioning deeply held stories around values, worldviews, and frames.
It takes a lot of emotional quickening to escalate from a conversation to a confrontation to a conflict to a fistfight to a war. There are many discrete steps in face-to-face communication that social norming has established, developed, and refined for thousands of years to limit such escalation. But, as is always the case, human beings’ tools for communication get better, friction and misunderstanding increases, even as the speed of communication increases, and conflicts flare up.
From carrier pigeons to riders on horseback to the telephone to mail by airplane to emails and now Twitter, there have always been people who would rather have a fight than share an idea. And as the speed of our tools has increased how fast we get a message and then react to it, (going from days or weeks to micro-seconds) there hasn’t been a commensurate increase in the heart of rational contemplation.
Thus we get to social media communication. Trolls, bad actors, spammers, and others use the immediacy of social communication tools to psychologically manipulate people on the other end of the message into reacting rather than thinking. And there’s really only two reactions such individuals are seeking: fight or flight.
They aren’t looking for a measured argument.
They aren’t looking for reasonable discourse.
They aren’t looking for knowledge or growth.
They are looking for either a respondent’s heels or their fangs.
In the case of the Internet, and the communication tools we have built on top of it, we have exchanged immediacy for escalation, and have confused passion for legitimacy of an assertion. This is particularly problematic for people delivering messages that are outside the “mainstream,” or that rely on dispassionate examination of facts, rather than passionate reaction to opinions.
Ease of access to digital tools also allows communication to be focused on the tawdry and the spectacle—which is short term—instead of the deliberative and the reasonable—which is long-term. The creators of these digital tools—the owners of the platforms—may be publicly or privately traded companies, but make no mistake: the platforms are private property and the Internet, while vast, is not a place where 1.6 billion participants need to (or deserve to) cast a vote on the operations of a series of companies that built the platforms in the first place.
What kind of communication do we want to have?
The answer to that question, at least as is evidenced by the numbers of people using these communications tools, seems to be that we want friction free, painless, non-relational based communication when we want it, how we want it, that allows us to do what we want, when we want, how we want. But this is an inherently selfish and vain position, based in our perception of want, rather than a relational need.
Online communication will always be fraught with difficulty and no amount of changing a name policy, policing speech we don’t like, or building walls and doors into platforms, is going to prevent than difficulty. This is because the tools we use to communicate are the problem because of the assumptions and expectations built into them.
We’ve got to figure this out though, because at a global scale, there won’t be a positive outcome from communications wars between people. We are already seeing the beginnings of skirmishes around the edges of platforms such as Reddit and Twitter. We are also seeing responses to such skirmishes from companies such as SnapChat and WhatsApp, which promise to build platforms with more friendly assumptions around safety, conviviality, and trust built into them, rather than welded on from the outside as an afterthought.
More special interest groups meeting with Facebook isn’t going to solve this communications problem.
More governmental lobbying at scale by Google isn’t going to solve this problem either.
More closing off, disengaging online, or demanding more censorious penalties for people we don’t like, saying things that make us feel threatened, abused, or bullied (the aforementioned trolls, bad actors, and spammers) isn’t going to solve this problem either.
The solution to all of this, as with most things, lies in changing the motivations toward selfishness, vanity, and revenge that lie deep in the heart of man.
And, to borrow from Einstein when he was talking about the outcomes of the development of nuclear weapons, I’m going to bet that the founders of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many, many other chatrooms, message boards, and email systems since the web was democratized, secretly wish, deep in their hearts, that they could go back in time, and instead become watchmakers.
-Peace Be With You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: firstname.lastname@example.org