Instagram, Nextdoor, and “Be Nice” Nudges

One of the first pieces of empathy-building tech* I wrote about was an algorithm built to recognize when comments on a newspaper story went off the rails. It was a tough story to place because it was hard to understand and even harder to explain. (I’m forever grateful for good editors!) The gist was that a group of researchers wanted to see if they could cultivate an environment in the comment section of a controversial story that would facilitate good, productive conversation. Their work eventually turned into Faciloscope, a tool aimed at detecting trolling behaviors and mediating them.

Like many research projects, it’s kind of hard to tell what happened after the initial buzz – grants change, people move, tech evolves, etc. All’s been pretty quiet on the automated comment section management front for a while, but over the past few months that’s begun to change. Now we can see similar technology popping up in the apps we use every day.

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Photo by Randalyn Hill on Unsplash

Earlier this year, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced that the app would soon have new features to help prevent bullying. The official plan was released yesterday, and it boils down to one new function: Restrict. According to Instagram, “Restrict is designed to empower you to quietly protect your account while still keeping an eye on a bully.” It works letting you approve Restricted people’s comments on your posts before they appear – and you can decide to delete or ignore them without even reading them too, if you want. You won’t get notifications for these comments, so it’s unclear to me how you’d know they happened unless you went looking for them, which hopefully you aren’t doing, but let’s be honest… we all do that

Anyway, what about direct messages? DMs from Restricted people will turn into “message requests,” like what already happens when someone you don’t know sends you a message. The sender won’t be able to see if you’ve read their message.

Inexplicably, Instagram also used this announcement to tell us about its new “Create Don’t Hate” sticker, as if that’s an anti-bullying feature… when it’s literally just a sticker you can put on your story. So… okay, cool?

I wouldn’t exactly call this empathy-building tech, but I would hear an argument that it’s an example of tech showing empathy for its users, with the usual caveat that this is probably way too little, way too late. It seems like a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It just should have been a thing much sooner.

This won’t have much use for me, because I’ve already unfollowed or blocked the people whose comments I’d least like to see. What I’d really like is a pop-up kind of like what Netflix has, that alerts me after I’ve been scrolling for more than 15 minutes… “Maybe it’s time for a break?” Or the ability to customize a pop up for when I visit one of my frenemies’ accounts… “Remember why you unfollowed this person??” But I could see it being useful for a teenager who gets bombarded with bullying messages. It’s a start, at least.

Nextdoor, essentially a neighborhood-specific Facebook/Reddit hybrid, did recently release prompts that might encourage empathyLike all social media platforms, Nextdoor has gained a reputation for fostering nastiness, NIMBYism, and even racism. So it launched a “kindness reminder,” which pops up to let you know if your reply to someone’s comment “looks similar to content that’s been reported in the past” and gives you a chance to re-read the community guidelines and rephrase your comment.

Nextdoor says the feature is meant to “encourage positivity across the Nextdoor platform,” but they also seem to suggest that it will make neighborhoods themselves more kind. They claim that in early tests of the feature, 1 in 5 people chose to edit their comments, “resulting in 2-% fewer negative comments” (though it’s not clear to me exactly how they measure negativity). They also claim the Kindness Reminder gets prompted less over time in areas where it’s been tested.

This, like Instagram’s Restricted feature, is an example of a social media company responding to many, many, many complaints of negative behavior and impact. But in Nextdoor’s case, there at least seems to be more transparency. In their post explaining the new feature, Nextdoor says the company built an advisory panel of experts, including Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social scientist who wrote a book about racial bias. There was apparently a session with some of Eberhardt’s students in which Nextdoor employees (executives? unclear) shared their experiences with bias in their own lives as well as on the platform. So, that’s something. If nothing else, I could imagine the Kindness Reminder at least making me stop for a second before dashing off a snarky comment, something that doesn’t happen as much as it used to but is still an unfortunate possibility for me…

One big question about all of this, of course, is why can’t we just use our internal “kindness reminders”? Most of us do have them, after all. But it’s hard when, as Eberhardt notes in the Nextdoor press release: “the problems that we have out in the world and in society make their way online where you’re encouraged to respond quickly and without thinking.” We can create as many empathy-focused tools as we want, but as long as that’s the case, there will always be more work to do.

 

*When I first started writing about this stuff, the concept seemed new to a lot of people and it seemed obvious that the words “ostensibly” or “supposedly” or “hopefully” were implied. Today, not so much, for good reason: a lot of tech that’s advertised as empathetic seems more invasive or manipulative. So, I hope you will trust me when I say I understand that context, and I think about the phrase “empathy-building tech” as having an asterisk most of the time.

The Facebook Supreme Court

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yesterday Facebook officially launched its Oversight Board, an independent body that will make decisions about what can and cannot be posted on Facebook and hear appeals from people whose posts have been taken down. It’s been compared to the Supreme Court, the top appeals court in the United States justice labyrinth.

Like the Supreme Court, Facebook says the Oversight Board will create precedent, meaning earlier decisions will be used to shape later ones, so they aren’t reinventing the wheel every time. Also like the Supreme Court, the Board will try to come to consensus, but when everyone can’t agree, the majority will make the decision and those who dissent can include their reasons in the final decision.

Unlike the Supreme Court though, the Oversight Board’s members won’t be nominated by the president…I mean CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He’s only appointing the two co-chairs, and it will be up to them to choose the rest of the 11-person board (it will get bigger as time goes on, according to the charter).

According to Facebook:

The purpose of the board is to protect free expression by making principled, independent decisions about important pieces of content and by issuing policy advisory opinions on Facebook’s content policies.

How will they choose what pieces of content are “important” enough to get an official ruling? The process is laid out in a post in Facebook’s newsroom. Cases referred to the Board will be those that involve “real-world impact, in terms of severity, scale and relevance to public discourse,” and that are “disputed, the decision is uncertain and/or the values involved are competing.”

I’m spitballing here, but my guess is that means it woouldn’t include your aunt posting confederate flag memes to her 12 followers, but it might include a politician who posts the same to their thousands of followers. My guess is that other cases will include things like body positivity posts that have been reported and taken down, like this one on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

In a blog post introducing the Board, Zuckerberg said it will start with “a small number of cases,” and admitted there’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s operational. I couldn’t find a method of actually submitting a case, for example.

The big question I ask myself when I see things like this: Do I think it is an empathetic use of technology? Do I think it shows an understanding of – and compassion for – users’ experiences and concerns? And do I think it will encourage users to be more empathetic themselves?

In some ways yes; almost; and maybe.

I do not think Zuckerberg ever expected to be tasked with arbitrating free speech on the internet. But he’s here now, and he’s getting a lot of pressure from politicians of all stripes to do something about harassment, privacy violations, and alleged censorship. Not to mention the fact that some lawmakers (and constituents, and former Facebook employees) want to break up the company’s ostensible monopoly on social media discourse. It’s all eyes on Zuck. His response to the free speech stuff has long been that it’s not his job to make those decisions. He has said he wants governments to make it clearer what’s okay to post online and what’s not. But by virtue of global politics and Facebook’s size and influence, the company is already making these decisions every day whether he likes it or not.

So I think a Supreme Court-style Oversight Board that can make binding decisions he cannot veto is smart. I think it could assuage some of his critics and make certain people feel more comfortable using the platform. I think it’s more self-preservation than empathy, but I think the effect could be an empathetic one if all goes well. But I also think it’s a HUGE undertaking that could go sideways pretty easily.

An internet appeals court is a real, tangible thing Facebook can give us, and it can have real, tangible results – controversial though they will be. Assurance that we won’t be manipulated by Macedonian trolls or bullied by classmates, or that we can post about our lives and ideas without unwittingly entering the thunderdome, is a lot harder to give.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams posted a thread yesterday. Not super surprising, since he’s one of the fathers of Twitter, but as he explained in said thread, he doesn’t post his thoughts there much. He sticks to links, because he, “[doesn’t] enjoy debating with strangers in a public setting” and he “always preferred to think of [Twitter] as an information network, rather than a social network.”

That definitely elicited some eye-rolls, but this was the tweet – in a long thread about how he wants reporters to stop asking him how to fix Twitter’s abuse problems – that really caught my eye…

That is… exactly the problem! It’s both reassuring to see this apparent self-awareness, and frustrating how late it’s come, and how defensive he still is…

Maybe he feels like he can’t say for sure whether being more aware of how people “not like him” were being treated or having a more diverse leadership team or board would have led the company to tackle abuse sooner…. but those of us who are “not like him” are pretty confident it would have. Or at least it could have. It should have.

This is what I mean when I talk about a lack of empathy in tech. I don’t know Ev Williams or any of his co-founders; I don’t know many people who have founded anything at all. And I understand that founders and developers are people deserving of empathy too. As I read Williams’s thread, I tried to put myself in his shoes, even as I resisted accepting much of what he was saying. I get that “trying to make the damn thing work” must have been a monumental task. But as I talk about here a lot – there’s empathy, and then there’s sympathy. And as Dylan Marron likes to say, empathy is not endorsement. I can imagine it, but I don’t get it. And it’s little solace to the hundreds of people who are harassed and abused via Twitter every day to hear it confirmed that their safety wasn’t a priority, whatever the reason.

They know this – we know this. The question is, what now? Williams, for his part, brushes off this question. It’s not his problem anymore, he seems to say, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, but if you have any “constructive ideas,” you should let Twitter know (or write about them on Medium, Williams’s other tech baby…)

The toxicity that Williams says he’s trying to avoid – that he says his famous friend is very upset by, that he seems almost ready to acknowledge is doing real damage to many, many other people who use Twitter – was part of what inspired me to write The Future of Feeling. I wanted to know, if it’s this bad right now, how much worse could it get? Is anyone anyone trying to stop this train?

I talked to a lot of people in my reporting for the book, and over and over again I heard the same idea echoed: empathy has to be part of the fabric of any new technology. It has to be present in the foundation. It has to be a core piece of the mission. Creating a thing for the sake of creating the thing isn’t good enough anymore. (Frankly, it never was.) The thing you create is very likely to take on a life of its own. You need to give it some soul, too.

Williams ended his thread with a tweet that actually resonated with me. It’s something I’ve found to be absolutely true:

People made this mess. People will have to clean it up. If Williams doesn’t want to, or know how to, I know a lot of other folks who are getting their hands dirty giving it a try.

existentialist friday epilogue

I wrote my last post in a fog – a mixture of anxiety, sadness, nihilism and hope. Super dramatic for a Friday night, I know! And reading it today, I’m a little surprised by how intense those feelings were, and how clearly that intensity comes through.

Maybe I should be embarrassed – it was a very vulnerable piece of writing that might be better suited to a private journal. But even after reading it today, and considering that, I decided to hit publish because I do not believe I’m alone in those feelings or thought processes, and I think there are few things more important in this world right now than community with others in our feelings and thought processes.

Not necessarily validation, or reassurance, but community.

That’s what those people in those Christchurch mosques were engaging in last week when they were murdered. It’s what I did at my own church yesterday, feeling sad and uncertain and comforted by the knowledge that I was sitting among a lot of other people feeling the same things. We sang and meditated together, called out the elephants in the room (racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, ambiguity) and continued our ongoing conversation about how to live with and wrangle them. Lately I’ve come to view this as the most beautiful and important thing about being human – existing in community with one another. It sounds pretty and easy but it is one of the most complicated and difficult things I’ve ever done. I am grateful that I woke up today and get to keep doing it.

It’s also amazing to me how clear these ideas are after a couple of days of letting them simmer inside me. I avoided social media as much as possible this weekend. I exercised while listening to an audiobook, watched people of all ages fly kites in perfect weather, watched my husband make sourdough bread for the first time and beam with pride, ate delicious crab cakes and pizza, toasted to friends’ birthdays, read, sat in community with my friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, drank a lot of water, took a bath, and let my brain breathe a little.

On the other side of all of that, I feel like things might be OK. I wonder what I can do to bring this feeling with me into every day, not just Mondays after a social media detox, while also respecting and cultivating the community that exists right there on social media too. They are different kinds of communities, but they overlap in so many ways. This is more true for me now that I live outside the New York City bubble than ever before, so maybe that’s why it might seem like I’m grasping for something others have known all along. But again, something tells me these things I’m wrestling with are more common than we like to admit.

Do you have your tech accountability buddy yet? Maybe you can admit it to each other?

just a little tech existentialism on a friday night

Note: I wrote this on Friday night (3/15) but didn’t want to post right away, to avoid seeming to make the Christchurch tragedy about me. That is not my intention at all. Rather, my intent is to share some of what was going through my mind that day (and frankly, many days) in hopes that it resonates with others and contributes to a broader conversation.

 

Who/what do you turn to when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted or afraid? When you feel overrun by information and opinions, how do you protect yourself?

I realized today that I don’t really have an answer to those questions.

It’s been a really long work week, and I’ve been channeling my stress into two things that I’ve noticed have become crutches for me when I don’t want to sit with my feelings: Instagram and podcasts.

This morning, by the time I got to work at 8:30 I had already watched about half an hour of Instagram stories, which is how I found out about the Christchurch shootings. I had heard a bit more about the horror on the short morning news podcast Up First, which I usually listen to while I get ready for work. I had also scrolled through Twitter for a few minutes, taking in but not quite digesting takes from dozens of people about what had happened, takes that made me feel, for a few seconds each: sad, sick, disgusted, embarrassed, guilty, defensive, angry, and heartbroken.

In the car, I put on Pod Save America and absorbed about 15 minutes of dudes yelling about politics and reminding me how untenable our current political situation is.

By the time I got to work I was feeling pretty anxious, but that’s nothing new for me so I just accepted it. I read some news, looked at Twitter some more, watched some more Instagram stories. Then I put PSA back on so I could listen while I did some editing. It’s like muscle memory.  Do some work while listening to a podcast, check email, get stressed about something, reach for phone and flip over to Instagram, feel guilty for doing that, get back to work and podcast, remember the world is burning, head over to Twitter, see something horrific, go back to Instagram for comfort, fill head with more and more and more of other people’s stories, ideas, and priorities.

I started reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier earlier this week and I’m only on page 16, so I don’t 100% know where the book is going, but the tone is already, “this is not what we meant for you when we made the social web.” And I know that’s true, to an extent. I don’t think anyone imagined this in the beginning, though I’m certain some people predicted it 10 or so years ago and helped usher it in because it makes lots of money. But it also makes people crazy.

I feel crazy, and when I say that I don’t mean it in the mentally ill sense (although we already know I am that, in some ways) but I mean frazzled, unmoored, grasping. I feel tethered to something for comfort but that thing is what makes me need comfort in the first place. I’ve seen several others compare their relationships with their phones and social media to abusive partner relationships, and I don’t think that’s far off.

Today, when I was overwhelmed by the bloodshed and hatred and extremity of the world all around me, I “retreated” via social media and podcasts into even more of the same. At 9:34am I sent my husband this message:

“I feel so overwhelmed today. I just want to crawl under my desk and cry.”

“I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way,” he messaged back.

But I feel that way almost every day around that time, because I set myself up for it. I know this, and yet I keep doing it, because it feels mandatory for being an active citizen of this world.

I know I’m not the only one in this cycle, and I really don’t think it has to be this way. But one of the things we’re going to have to do to change it is to gather the courage to break out.

On the first page of You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier writes:

“I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Right now I get the sense that many of us feel that sharing ourselves is part of what makes us somebody. I’m reminded of this recent piece in The Atlantic about young kids coming to terms with their own online-ness. One 13-year-old said, of trying to find information about herself with a group of friends in fifth grade: “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online…We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that last part really resonated with me. I grew up online, and have been sharing things about myself there since high school, maybe earlier. Having an online presence, an online self, has felt natural to me for half my life. I’m also a writer, so it might feel more natural to me than most to share my thoughts with the world. But something has shifted over the past few years, and the way the internet – and especially social media – is tied to my identity scares me a little. I find myself wondering if I’m doing certain things because I want to do them, or because I want to share them. When something big happens, I sometimes find myself imagining how I’ll describe it on social media before I even realize what I’m doing. Like I said, tethered. 

Online is where the validation is, I guess, even when we have partners and spouses and families and friends. The silent, pretty, no-strings-attached validation so many of us millennials simultaneously crave (because it’s a normal thing for a human to crave) and cynically joke about not caring about, or not being able to attain. But a lot of us seem to be grabbing for that validation in place of actually dealing with things. And I get it – there is too much to deal with. Mass shootings, climate change, racism, income inequality, mental and physical health problems – it’s all too much. But now that we have been performing for each other online for 30ish years, I’m worried we’re starting to forget not just how to be around each other, but how to feel. As a kid, my identity was so wrapped up in feeling – I cried all the time, was so emotional it scared some of my teachers, and later on definitely scared off a few boyfriends. I don’t cry as much anymore, which is probably healthy, but I also don’t really feel anything stronger than hunger or anxiety for more than a minute at a time. As soon as it pops up – sadness, anger, hurt, shame, worry – there I go, reaching for my phone.

I think there are a lot of remedies to this. One would of course be to just go cold turkey, cut ourselves off from all social media and not look back, but that kills all the good along with the bad. And there is so much good.

Another idea: the people who make this stuff, these products designed to pull us back for more and more, triggering dopamine receptors like slot machines, could…you know…stop. They could pull back and be more mindful – more empathetic – about how their users experience their products. I’m far from the first to suggest this, but given the slowly growing exodus from platforms like Facebook (by both users and employees), it might be about time for them to listen.

Or maybe something more communal is more realistic. Maybe we can get the human connection and validation we crave by helping each other be kinder to our brains and gentler toward our emotions, while also keeping up with all the memes and Trump tweets. What if you had a tech accountability buddy who texted you once a day to ask about your internet activity and how it was making you feel – not to shame you, but to empathize, acknowledge, validate, and encourage you? There are apps that do this, and chat bots, but as much faith as I want to have in empathetic technology, I know they don’t really care. Maybe a friend does, or wants to. Maybe we can get to a healthier place – a place where we can demand better from those who design the tools we use, and figure out how to use them without becoming dependent on them, and get back to feeling the difficult feelings – together.

By the way, you can support Christchurch victims and families here.

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.

If you actually want debate, you can’t ignore empathy

 

This past Saturday, I turned off my phone. This is something I almost never do, but I felt like I needed a real break from social media.

“It will all be there when you turn it back on,” my husband reminded me.

But after we went grocery shopping, I had a bad feeling. I thought it could just be the fact that I was addicted to social media and was going through some kind of withdrawal, but it was strong, so I turned on my phone. I opened Twitter and immediately saw what I’d missed. Just an hour or so before, a man had driven his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally, injuring many and, we’d later find out, killing one.

There’s not much I can say about this that hasn’t already been said. Even in that moment, I knew that anything I posted on social media would just sound hollow, like a repetition of everything on nearly everyone else’s feeds. But I needed to check on a few friends in Charlottesville who I only communicate with via Facebook, so I logged on. They were all OK, thankfully. Once I realized that, I should have logged off and let myself process, but of course that’s not what happened. Over the next few days I was drawn back, again and again, into the same debate: Whether Or Not Both Sides Were At Fault (for what, exactly, I was never able to determine), and Whether Or Not Trump Had Anything To Do With This.

Let me be clear: I am frightened that I know people who equate running someone down with a car and spraying someone with mace. I’m horrified that I know actual white supremacists. I wish that went without saying, but right now, I know it doesn’t. Just to be clear, it is my personal opinion that much of what’s happened over the past several days is not really “debatable.”

What I want to talk about today, though, is this online culture of debate itself. Because every time something like this happens, there are people who seem to button up their shirts, tighten their ties, and step up to the debate podium, assuming anyone they come across is similarly prepared for a capital-D Debate, following all of the same rules they’ve memorized. They argue that this is the only way to proceed. That anything else is uncivil, illogical, a waste of time.

One man (who I’ve never spoken to before) repeatedly called me and another friend “illogical” for stating our opinions about what had happened, and about the broader state of the U.S. right now. We needed to stop being “emotional,” he said, and provide him hard proof of our claims. He rejected requests for him to do the same because, in his words, “you can’t prove a negative.” He seemed to be looking for something that fit a very specific set of parameters that only he understood, and it was clear we could never give that to him. I’ve had many conversations like this over the past several years, and the argument is always that this person is simply trying to have a “civil debate.” I’m not sure most of these people really know what that means if they think it can’t involve emotion or empathy.

I remember learning the rules of debate, and the logical fallacies to avoid, in my 9th grade English class. We had to memorize these things for a test, so some of them stuck in my head. We also had to read, a lot. That was the part I liked best – sinking into the characters in the books and book excerpts we read for each class and discussing the themes and issues that came up in things like Huck Finn and Of Mice And Men and The Gift of the Magi. Imagining what it was like to be those people. This is the time that many of us start to really engage with empathy, studies show. But it can seem like some of my peers only took away the “debate” part of the curriculum.

I remember using the rules of debate in college, especially in my Media Law and International Relations classes, where we talked openly and earnestly about some of the biggest problems of the world. And being a bunch of 19 and 20-year-olds in North Carolina who hailed from all around the country, we didn’t always agree. But looking each other in the face, in a classroom, in front of our peers and teachers, we had another rule that kept things civil: yes, empathy again (how did you guess?). Sometimes this rule was explicit, but a lot of the time it just seemed to come naturally. I know that can be harder on social media, especially when you’re talking to people you barely know (or in some cases don’t know at all). But that’s what has me thinking… if you’re going to demand everyone follow the rules of debate that you learned in high school or college for every Facebook conversation, why not employ all of those rules?

The reality is, just like good business and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive, neither are debate and empathy. If what you really want is a civil conversation, you can start one by starting with empathy. For one thing, you’re more likely to get people to believe what you’re saying that way, and for another, you’re more likely to truly understand the other person’s arguments. And isn’t that one of the first rules of debate? In fact, empathy and perspective-taking are some of the primary reasons schools teach kids to debate in the first place.

I saw this in action earlier this year when I helped judge a debate competition for middle schoolers in Brooklyn. These kids were prepared, and they were ruthless about the rules (they kept me in line!) but they were also unfailingly empathetic. They understood the power of empathy in making their arguments, but also in maintaining their humanity while doing so. It seemed effortless for most of them. If a sixth-grader can do it, we can too.

A lot of the time, of course, it turns out that the people demanding “debate” on forums like Facebook don’t actually want that at all. They just want somewhere to put their anger and defensiveness, or a place to find validation for what they already believe. But those who truly are trying to learn or convince – two actual goals of actual debate – would do well to remember empathy. And that means thinking intentionally about whether or not the person you’re talking to has even consented to debating at all. People use social media for all kinds of things, including debate, but also including emotional expression, reaching out for support, and activism. A bit more empathy can help us see that not everyone is a potential debate opponent – some people are mourning, or struggling, or just working things out for themselves – and can lead to more productive conversations when a mutual debate does take place.