Antisocial Media

Why Facebook is a terrible place to have controversial conversations


These 19th century cowboys dancing to fiddle tunes, posted to a Facebook group, is but the latest case in point. A kindly member of our oldtime community ran across the photograph, found it interesting, and chose to share it with others. The result: a rapid downward spiral into chaos, misunderstanding, reproach, excommunication, polarization, and exodus. Why did this have to happen? Because we’re using the wrong tools.

For all the kind people, friendliness, and support that we regularly encounter in the community, the virtual life of the oldtime scene on social media is not without its controversies. A top ten list might look something like this:

  1. What do we do about racist songs and tunes?
  2. Can we play murder ballads?
  3. How should we address the lack of diversity in the oldtime community?
  4. What’s the right blend of imitation and creativity in playing classic tunes?
  5. Are minor VIs allowed in major tunes? What about major VIIs in modal tunes?
  6. What should be done about the Confederate flags at Galax?
  7. Who counts as a “source” and who doesn’t?
  8. Is Ithaca style really oldtime? 
  9. What is appropriate jam etiquette?
  10. What should we do about the banjo uke?

The scope and gravity of these questions varies widely, but they are all very real questions about which there is currently no consensus. What unites them all—I want to claim—is that they are completely useless to discuss on Facebook or other social media channels, because the structure of discussions on social media platforms makes them the wrong place to address controversial questions. Until we understand this structural misfit, we will most likely only make matters worse. Which is precisely what we keep doing. Over and over again.

If oldtime is a great way to bring people together, the oldtime on Facebook is a great way to push them apart.

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Zero context, zero social clues

In-person conversations, even with complete strangers as at a party or a festival, are highly context-rich situations. We stand there as flesh-and-blood people in space and time, with friends and acquaintances nearby or directly at hand. Our facial and bodily expressions speak volumes, our vocal intonation gives essential clues about the intention and emotional content of our words. Our clothes, age, and appearance give important additional pieces of context. The presence of our discussion partners almost always leads us to temper our views and seek to display some validation of the other’s point of view.

Even when conversations get heated—and, the more important the topic, the more friction there is likely to be, and perhaps should be—we have very immediate feedback telling us when to cool it down. Other people in the conversation can step in to moderate or steer things in a less conflicted direction. And we have the wonder of impermanence. Our words are gone as soon as they are spoken. Our attention is drawn to the next words, the next expression of emotion. Thank God our drunken ramblings at three o’clock in the morning are not preserved for future reflection and embarrassment.

All of these important clues, features, and points of context are lost on Facebook and other social media platforms. Devoid of this richness, we try to make up for it through word choices and emojis, “likes” and capital letters. But the effect of that is to make us like children trying to scream through the din of a shopping mall. The poverty of communication on Facebook pushes people to exaggerated and heated words, reinforcing a vicious cycle of polarization rather than real engagement. Some of the best new ideas emerge from the most fractious in-person debates. Because of the way conversations are structured on social media, the chances of those ideas emerging there are next to nothing.

No social restraint

As most all of us know from our communication in text messages, emails, and even letters, the distance of the written word from its readers is both a blessing and a curse. Writing from behind a screen (or a piece of paper) gives us protection in both space and time. We can lower our normal social filters and say “what we really want to say, no holds barred.” Sometimes this is a wonderful thing. Perhaps I can be more honest about certain topics when I pen a letter. Words that might sound corny or sappy to my ears can be more safely written down. And, on the other hand, statements that might be difficult to hear or painful can also be ventured behind the protective wall of writing.

Of course, there is still a very real risk that in this case I might go too far. I might choose the wrong words. The tones might come across all wrong, and sitting far away, I will have no way of setting them straight. But in this case it’s still to a person I know well, someone who knows me well, someone who will almost certainly have the opportunity to speak to me in person about those very words if I’ve gone astray.

Social media removes that crucial personal connection. As we scan down the unending posts in our feed, we encounter a hot topic. Maybe we read a few of the comments highlighted by an algorithm designed to keep us agitatedly searching for the next dopamine hit. Oh, it feels good to throw another few firecrackers in the bonfire. And hey, I’m safely here behind the screen. No one’s going to hit me, to yell at me. At worst, I might be blocked. Well, then I can go rant about that somewhere else.

These tendencies are all quite opposite to what we tend to want when we speak to each other in person. We go through extensive contortions to maintain harmony in our immediate, physical social context. Even when we dare to throw out incendiary words, we are highly attentive to the reactions of those around us, quick to take our words back or qualify them, or maybe just defuse the whole thing with a smile or a joke. Social media strips us of these important pro-social, conflict-avoidant tendencies. It washes out nuance and rewards belligerence. At its worse, it transforms us into antisocial creatures.

And there’s even more bad news

The lack of context and social restraint are not social media’s only structural weakness for constructive conversation. There are many more. 

  • We know little or nothing about the reputation or experience of those who take part in the conversations. 
  • The visual structure of comment threads leads to important points being wildly strewn around in a senseless mess. 
  • We can get easily stuck in self-reinforcing echo chambers, strengthening our convictions and blinding us to contrary views—and information that might complicate the views we hold. 
  • Cooler, more reasoned voices tend to remain silent. 

Facebook is great for lots of things. It’s great for sharing stuff you’re proud of and think others would enjoy. It’s great for asking for simple recommendations: an album, a new capo, a festival to visit. It’s great for letting people know about events. It’s great for keeping in touch casually with people who are far away, for telling a joke, for sharing a story—for getting a little glimpse into friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, enhancing our in-person time together.

But it is simply a digital tool. And like any tool, it’s great for some things, okay for others, and useless for most.

There are very pressing topics in the oldtime community that demand our attention—from the very serious moral and social issues of our day and how they’re reflected in the music we play, to far less significant (and yet controversial) aesthetic ones, about how we interpret the music we love. We should address them. And we should find ways to embody our new insights into the community itself.

But for goodness sake, don’t do it on Facebook.