Facebook was not designed for arguing

I spend far too much time on Facebook, as do several of my friends on it who happen to a) be the sorts of people who have very strong views on EVERYTHING and b) don’t mind letting the rest of the world know. This mixture, when added to liberal amounts of free time and internet access and left to simmer, is a potent cocktail, and one which has resulted, in the past, in some vicious arguments below (often rather innocuous) posts that seem to gravitate the loud and opinionated towards them. I have found, from experience, that it is all too easy to get drawn in to making a ‘Just to say …’ comment which will, several dozen notifications and a few hours later, result in me posting a 3-page essay denouncing Conservative ideology and ruing the moment that I even considered posting a comment in the first place. So, why exactly do such arguments tend to proliferate on facebook, of all places?

I mean, taken simply as a concept, the whole idea seems stupid. Facebook is a social utility, something to chat with your friends, organise events, and stalk people you have an unnatural obsession with (which I should point out does NOT come from personal experience). It’s a relaxed thing, all about making the sharing of information about people you know, with people you know, easy. If you want an argument over politics, crime or hipsters (all things that have been the subject of vehement facebook-based argument in the last couple of weeks among my friends), then that’s what forums are for. Or even, you know… real life?

So if Facebook is such an unsuitable platform for argument, why is it the source of so many? A few ideas spring to mind, beginning with the level of separation from the argument that the internet in general provides. Arguing in real life can be a stressful experience, especially if you’re up against a more confident experienced, or even physically intimidating opponent, and it’s easy to stumble over your facts and words. However, arguing online is a different case entirely- rather than being delivered real-time, points are delivered in chunks, each one of which can be individually prepared, edited and researched without the other party knowing. This allows one to take a more ‘armchair’ position on arguments, making them feel more in control and confident, and less likely to back down. Arguing online isn’t a full-on task either- you can be having multiple other conversations, reading something, playing a game, whatever, at the same time, which further decreases the stress and increases the relaxation and separation associated with arguing, making the participant even less likely to just back down.

Then there is the Facebook notification system. Unlike forums, where receipt of comments is generally achieved by refreshing the page, Facebook actively goes out of its way to tell you when someone has had the next word in an argument- a bright red flash in the top left hand corner, a notice flashing up in the bottom left- hell, it even gives you a little number in the name bar so you know something’s happened from another tab. There is no way to escape the knowledge that the argument has been proliferated, that someone has made a provocative comment that is just asking to be shouted down. And with that knowledge in mind, it becomes very hard to ignore  and leave well alone. Not only that, but because notifications don’t go away unless responded to, Facebook will allow you to keep an argument going several hours, or even days, after the last time you commented. In the real world, a topic of conversation is rarely brought up twice in any short space of time, but I have seen one argument on Facebook extend itself over 3 consecutive nights.

And of course there is the people Facebook connects you with. There is the fact that just about everyone capable of reading this will have a Facebook account, unlike the sparse population of some forums, and the fact that the people you will be connecting with are people you know (which makes the argument more compelling to stick with). Then there is the way that people tend to spend much of the time they spend online not doing very much, making them bored and very susceptible to distractions such as a long argument- there is similarly far less chance of them, if they are spending a large chunk of time on Facebook, suddenly having another engagement which will cut the argument short. Facebook is, in short, connecting lots of young (and therefore quite likely to have strong opinions), bored people to one another’s provocative comments- arguments are bound to proliferate from there.

I could go on here, but as you may be able to tell from my style of writing, I am not feeling altogether… well, all together this evening, so shall conclude here. Arguments on Facebook do happen, that much has been explained. But that doesn’t mean that they should- all they ever end up doing is pissing off everybody involved and quite a few people who aren’t. It’s just not worth the bloody effort.

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