Is civil discourse possible on social media?

In this podcast episode of the Three-Headed Hydra Podcast, we debate about whether or not debating on social media makes sense. Personally, I believe there is not much value in it. Let me explain:

  1. In many instances, you do not know who the person you’re interacting with really is. It could be a well-programmed bot and you wouldn’t even notice it.
  2. There are limitations to the way you communicate on social media. Whether these limitations manifest themselves through limited characters or a inflexible, predefined format, or – more important – through the lack of non-verbal communication that allow for nuances that you would only pick up when talking face-to-face, it is not a suited format for debating in a meaningful way.
  3. Debating on social media is conditioned by algorithms that have trained us that the more we manage to be shared or “liked”, the more value we or our arguments have. This is very misleading as most debates happen within bubbles. If I enter a debate in “my adversaries” echo chamber, I will most certainly loose that debate if simply counting the likes on each side of the argument, no matter whether my arguments are better or not.

But even if we assume that every person on each side of the argument has good intentions. Let’s say everyone wants real, meaningful conversation. There is another major, unsolved problem.

Bridging the gap between mental models

While studying media informatics in Germany, part of our training covered Human-Computer-Interaction and how most software projects fail, for various reasons (budget, time constraints etc.). One huge problem was that the various people involved in a project, even if all of them are professionals, often use the same language, but don’t mean the same thing.

Every actor views the world through a personal, different mental model. It is impossible for the person sitting across to guess what I mean and which personal interpretations and assumptions I put into each word. There are methods to help gap that bridge and it is crucial in software development to get a developers mind and a customers mind aligned – not an easy task with professionals coming from completely different worlds.

But there is no such thing as bridging the gap of mental models in real-time shouting matches on the internet. At least none that I’ve come across.

Even if you talk with a person face-to-face, it can take months or years, before you really get to know that person, their motivations and their true intentions. Even if you do, I’m sure many readers here went through a breakup at some stage in their life, wondering how their partner wasn’t who we thought they were in all these years.

All I’m saying is, that talking, debating with another human being is complex. And the complexity of life is insufficiently mapped with social media in its current state.