It’s not just bad behavior – why social media design makes constructive disagreements hard online

Good faith disagreements are an integral part of society and help build strong relationships. Yet it is difficult to engage in good faith disagreements on the Internet, and people reach less common ground online versus face-to-face disagreements.

There is no shortage of research on the psychology of online argument, text against voice at how anyone can become a troll and advice on how to argue well. But there is another factor that is often overlooked: the design of social media itself.

My colleagues and I investigated how social media design affects disagreements online and how to design constructive arguments. We polled and interviewed 257 people about their experiences with online arguments and how design might help. We asked what features of 10 different social media platforms make it easy or difficult to chat online, and why. (Full disclosure: I get research funding from Facebook.)

We’ve found that people often avoid discussing difficult topics online for fear of damaging their relationships, and when it comes to disagreements, not all social media is the same. People may spend a lot of time on a social media site and not engage in arguments (e.g. YouTube) or find it almost impossible to avoid arguments on some platforms (e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp).

Here’s what people told us about their experiences with Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube, which were the most and least common places for online arguments.

Seventy percent of our participants had engaged in an argument on Facebook, and many spoke negatively about the experience. People said they thought it was hard to be vulnerable because they had an audience: the rest of their Facebook friends. One participant said on Facebook, “Sometimes you don’t admit your failures because other people are watching. The disagreements became fights with a captive audience, rather than two or more people trying to express their views and find common ground.

People also said that the way Facebook structures comments prevents meaningful engagement because many comments are automatically hidden and shortened. This prevents people from seeing the content and participating in the discussion.

In contrast, people said that arguing over a private messaging platform such as WhatsApp allows them to “be honest and have an honest conversation.” It was a popular place for online arguments, with 76% of our participants reporting having argued on the platform.

Organizing the messages also allowed people to “stay focused on the discussion at hand.” And, unlike the experience of face-to-face conversations, a person receiving a message on WhatsApp could choose when to respond. People said it helped online dialogue because they had more time to think about their responses and step back from the emotional load of the situation. However, this sometimes turned into too much time between messages, and people said they felt ignored.

Overall, our participants felt that the privacy they had on WhatsApp was necessary for vulnerability and authenticity online, with many more people agreeing that they could talk about controversial topics on private platforms rather than public like Facebook.

Very few people reported having an argument on YouTube, and their opinions on YouTube depended on the feature they were using. While commenting, people said they “might write something controversial and no one will respond”, making the site “feel like you’re leaving a review rather than having a conversation.” Users felt they may have disagreements in a video’s live chat, with the caveat that the channel did not moderate the discussion.

Unlike Facebook and WhatsApp, YouTube is all about video content. Users liked “that a particular video can focus on, without having to defend, quite a problem” and that “you can make long videos to really explain yourself”. They also liked that the videos facilitate more social cues than is possible in most online interactions, because “you can see the person’s facial expressions on the videos they produce.”

YouTube’s platform-wide moderation received mixed reviews, as some people believed they could “comment freely without persecution” and others said the videos were removed at YouTube’s discretion. ” usually [for] a ridiculous or absurd reason. People also felt that when creators moderated their comments and “just filtered out the things they didn’t like,” it kept people from having difficult discussions.

Redesign of social networks to better argue

We asked participants how the proposed design interactions might improve their online arguing experiences. We showed them storyboards of features that could be added to social media. We’ve found that people like some features already present in social media, like the ability to remove inflammatory content, block users who derail conversations, and use emoji to convey emotions in text.

People were also enthusiastic about an intervention that helps users ‘channel switch’ from a public online space to a private online space. This involves an app intervening in an argument over a public post and suggesting that users switch to a private discussion. One person said “this way people don’t get bored and included in online discussions that don’t really involve them”. Another said: “It would save a lot of people from arguing in public.”

One way for social media platforms to step in is to eliminate bickering from public discussions.
“Someone is Wrong on the Internet: Having Difficult Conversations in Online Spaces”, CC BY-ND

Intervene, but cautiously

Overall, the people we interviewed were cautiously optimistic about the potential of design to improve the tone of arguments online. They hoped the design might help them find common ground with others online.

Yet people are also wary of the potential for technology to become intrusive during an already sensitive interpersonal exchange. For example, a well-intentioned but naive intervention might backfire on you and seem “scary” and “too”. One of our interventions involved a forced 30-second timeout, designed to give people time to calm down before responding. However, our subjects believed that this might end up frustrating people more and derailing the conversation.

Social media developers can take steps to foster constructive disagreement online through design. But our results suggest that they will also need to consider how their interventions might backfire, interfere, or have unintended consequences for their users.

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