Is Social Media ruining the good old heated debate

I was reading a post by Ryan Tate over at Valleywag this morning which lead in to posts by Edward Boches and Bob Knorpp where the common thread between them all being that we are all becoming a bunch of agreeable wishy washy Charlie Brown types.

Now to clarify the parameters here; we are not talking about the perpetual idiots who do nothing more than try to destroy people verbally. We are not talking about the area of blogging that deals with hot button subjects like politics or other editorial slash news types of blogs.

What we are talking about is the Social Media arena where services like Twitter and Facebook are the face of social media networks. We are talking about those bloggers who deal with the whole social media ecosphere. We are talking about the marketers, PR people and other promoters of the whole idea of Social Media.

Of the three posts I think that Bob Knorpp did an excellent job of breaking down the reasons why services like Twitter, Facebook and social media related blogs are geared more to the old clap on the back “great post” type of response. It all boils down to the very way that they are structured, after all we are encouraged to follow “friends” not “people you disagree with”. At the heart of social media the idea is that we should all be striving to “get along” rather than to intelligently challenge ideas and concepts being proposed.

Bob puts it this way

While debate does happen among friends, by their very design the social networks are predisposed toward forming circles of like-minded people. Same with personal blogs. It’s unlikely you’re going to waste time reading the opinions of an individual you don’t agree with. So finding spirited disagreement in such circles is simply not the norm. Which raises the question of whether such environments are healthy if not matched to at least some mainstream engagement.

Even looking through the comments to Edward’s post it is easy to see that there is is some confusion when it comes to how people perceive what is being discussed. The one’s that disagreed with Edward more often than not seemed to be missing the thrust of his point. Where Edward was trying to make the point in relation to social media the commenter’s where defending their points of view by using examples that have nothing to do with social media.

As commenter Ben Kunz, who called Edward’s points “absolutely wrong” said

But the broader the audience, the sharper the response. Adweek columns draw a bit of hostility. When I’ve written pointed opinions for BusinessWeek to a very diverse readership, damn, all hell breaks loose. I thought the Widget Association Whatever was going to lynch me when I called animated boxes on web pages a passing fad.

Excuse me but none of those examples have anything to do with social media or the other examples that Edward was using.

Some of the underlying themes as to why we see this type of “can’t we just all get along” mentality appear to be along the following lines

  1. Time: in order to be able to craft a well reasoned and thought out objection to some-one’s ideas or thoughts takes time and people don’t want to spend the time needed to respond. As well I would add it takes a willingness to defend one’s own points of view when it comes to the subject being discussed.
  2. Attention Span: with all the information constantly coming our way becoming involved with long drawn out discussions that require a larger portion of our attention than pithy one-line responses before skipping on to the next tidbit of information isn’t something that a lot of people want to do.
  3. Fear: as the emotions around discussions can increase the more likelihood that tempers will get heated and out will come the dreaded “troll” word. No-one wants to be labeled as such a person so we either hold back honest opinion or we don’t get involved at all.
  4. Closed Circle: because we only have so much time in a day that we can spend being involved in online discussions or reading it is human nature to gravitate to those who match our own “world-view”. This type of closed circle of reading and involvement very rarely leads to heated discussions where we are pushed to defend points of view and at the same time learn from each other.

This idea that Social Media is all about “goodness and light” can be seen in the popularity and reader, follower/friends, numbers. Take a look on Twitter and the Social Media leader board there and you will see that the “always positive” contingent has follower numbers that are through the roof, whereas those that like to push the limits, those that question the ‘status quo’ have a lot less followers e.g.: @1938media. When it comes to blogs it is people like Chris Brogan, Louis Gray and others who find their readership grow by leaps and bounds. Those on the other hand who constantly question the “social media party line” often find themselves relegated to the blogging hinterland.

In the Social Media realm there seems to be this need to put on a face of everything is positive and those nasty little negative people are only an aberration. The primary reason for this of course is because Social Media is the current golden child of the Internet and there are a lot of people investing their futures in it which means having to paint a pretty picture in order to make it palatable for companies because we all know this is where the money is when it comes to making a living.

The problem is that all this warm and fuzzy can make things very boring and eventually drain the life out of Social Media. As Ryan said in his post

It’s so hard to start a good fight on Twitter. Praise someone effusively, it gets “re-tweeted” endlessly, while nice juicy feuds get smothered in the crib. Every Twitter user is president of his own fraternity. How stale!

Stale indeed.

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