Every once so often, I get sucked into a political argument on Facebook. Sometimes someone will post one of those “share this if you agree” pictures, and I don’t agree with it. Sometimes one of my liberal friends’ conservative friends will make a comment, and because (I’m not proud to admit) I sometimes suffer from the tendency illustrated by xkcd #386, I will feel moved to respond. Every one of these encounters has left me increasingly convinced that Facebook is not a good forum for political arguments. I’ve identified two reasons:
- The way Facebook displays comments is poorly suited for discussion.
- People who post political content don’t necessarily want to spark a discussion, and it’s hard to tell.
The problems with Facebook’s commenting system
A productive, respectful, and thoughtful exchange of ideas is most likely if every participant has carefully read and considered the previous contributions to the discussion. The design of Facebook’s commenting system discourages people from doing this.
- Facebook hides all but the two most recent comments.
- After comments reach a certain length, Facebook hides the remainder of the comment behind a “See More” link.
- Facebook will even truncate the original post, if it’s beyond a certain length, by hiding most of the post behind a “See More” link.
The overall effect is to require additional effort for people to read everything that’s been said before. As a result, it’s easy for people to repeat points that have already been made, or to criticize others’ views without actually having read them in full, or without understanding the reasoning. People end up talking past each other.
Furthermore, Facebook encourages shorter comments, by having the [Enter] key post the comment, and requiring [Shift]-[Enter] to make a line break. This further discourages substantive discussion.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think these are poor design decisions on the part of Facebook’s engineers. Indeed, these design decisions are perfectly fine for comments congratulating people on a new job, wishing someone a happy birthday, or commiserating with someone who has had a poor day at work. They are just poorly suited to political arguments. I imagine this is because Mark Zuckerberg and his friends did not have political discussions in mind when they designed Facebook.
It’s hard to tell when people actually want to have a discussion
People don’t just use social networking sites to stay in touch with friends and family, but also as a way to express their identity. Political posts are no exception to that: for many of us, our political ideology and beliefs are an important part of our identity. And not everyone who posts political views is interested in having those view challenged. Sometimes they are looking for affirmations from like-minded friends. Sometimes they just want to share information or lines of argumentation with like-minded friends.
By the way, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. I do believe that honest, frank debate of political issues makes for a better society, but such discussion can be draining. It’s reasonable for people to not want to engage in such discussion at all times. A good analogy would be someone who has an Obama ’12 bumper sticker on their car. Such a person doesn’t necessarily want to discuss the president’s policies with every driver they meet on the highway.
The problem is that’s it can be difficult to tell whether a poster is open to having their views challenged or not. So, when you respond to such posts, you run the risk of bothering someone.