Don't fight flame with flame on social media
LAST year, at a low point in my life, I did something I'm still utterly ashamed of. When I tell you, please understand, I was upset at the time. Emotions were running high.
OK - deep breath - I got into an argument with a group of people on Twitter about Trayvon Martin, which was the main news story of that time.
I know, how could I be so stupid? To think that I could have a constructive conversation about something on social media.
Luckily, my part in the Twitter fight didn't last long. A friend saw my tweets and instantly sent me the text message: "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!"
But it was too late. My phone lit up like flashing Christmas lights as hate-filled messages were hurled at me.
I was called "ignorant". Told I was "egregiously wrong". And, in a matter of seconds, called a number of words that are not fit for a newspaper.
I quickly called my friend and pleaded: "How do I make it stop?"
"You can't make it stop," he proclaimed while admonishing me. "What were you thinking? You know you can't win a Twitter fight. You can never win an argument with someone on social media."
Sadly, he was right. Trying to discuss an even remotely contentious topic with someone on social media is a fool's errand.
Yet, we do it. My Twitter and Facebook feeds over the last month have been filled with vulgar discourse about Israel and Gaza.
So what's a social media user to do? Not share links or offer opinions because the mob won't like it?
I asked a number of journalists whose job is to be attacked by people online, and they said they simply don't respond.
The impulse is to reply to someone who has called you names with louder and meaner name-calling. And social media seems like it was designed to help perpetuate conflict, not help people avoid it.
"One of the many problems when you respond to something digitally is that it is so instant," said Bernie Mayer, the author of several books on conflict resolution and a professor at the Creighton University School of Law in Omaha. "One of the things we know that helps people in conflict is to slow things down a little."
We can toss that solution right out the window. Most sites are designed to let you know, in real time, when someone wants to engage with you.
Prof Mayer noted that, besides speed, another problem with digital arguments is that people can't detect tone, facial expression and, most of all, sarcasm.
Numerous studies have found that people try to detect these things, often looking for social cues in grammar and use of emoticons. But in a 140-character fight, that's almost impossible.
Take the short sentence, "Yeah, you're right." In the middle of an argument on Twitter, that could easily read as sarcasm, even if the person is being sincere.
Surprisingly, the conflict and dispute experts I spoke with said that you should actually engage with your detractors, allowing your emotions to cool first, and, in a really heated instance, take the discussion elsewhere.
Fighting online like this would be like getting into an argument with your husband or wife - and inviting your neighbours, family, friends and co-workers over to watch as things escalate.
Colin Rule, who is the former director of online dispute resolution at eBay and PayPal, said that to avoid this kind of spectacle, move a debate somewhere out of the public eye, like e-mail. Another benefit of e-mail is that conversations can be given a much-needed lag time that can help temper emotions.
But, Mr Rule warned, even writing long chunks of text can raise problems. "Online, people can say very hurtful things because they don't see the reaction, or how it affects someone," he said.
Since last year, after my brief Twitter fight, I've chosen to respond very selectively to online debates. While I share links about hot topics, including Israel and Gaza, I no longer engage with people who are trying to pick a public fight, and I completely ignore any smidgen of online snark.
There are still times I do respond to people by e-mail. But, as soon as it starts to devolve and turn ugly, I take that tried-and-true advice from my astute friend: "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!"
THE NEW YORK TIMES