Boundaries are a good thing.

After spending far too many hours on Facebook in the last couple years engaged in arguments and strong disagreements over a surprisingly broad array of current affairs issues, I realized that part of the problem was the currently in-vogue idea that social media is a place to debate. And I realized I’d bought into that idea.

Look at the result: people withdrawing into cliques, tons of unfriending over COVID or MAGA or Trump or BLM… somehow, we forgot how to be friends with diverse views without arguing.

I’ve been slowly changing my mind about how I should manage my own social media profiles and interactions, and I think I reached a tipping point.

I’ve heard it said that good fences make good neighbors. Social media really lacks any kind of fences, at least by default. And that’s actually not surprising, given the nature of social media.

Generally speaking, it appears to me that most social media platforms are a place where people often deliberately post content that is either provocative, designed to rile people up for angry replies, or that frequently is pandering, again designed to get likes and views, but mostly from people who already agree. In either case, it works through driving engagement, either positive or negative, or often both as people begin to join in the fray.

It reminds me of watching videos of a fight in a high school hallway. More and more people begin to run up to the perimeter, start yelling at the combatants, taking sides, and often starting to break into additional scuffles amongst themselves. Pretty much the entire focus is on the fight, and it becomes its own entertainment, regardless of the issue that started it.

It’s worth noting that Facebook and other social platforms explicitly thrive on conflict and emotion. The algorithms are explicitly designed to trigger and then reap engagement. A key word here is “trigger.” If they can show you stuff that incites an emotional response, either good or bad, you’ll engage. They don’t care whether it’s good or bad; either one drives up engagement counts, fires off dopamine in the person who gets the “someone responded” notification, and keeps both you and them coming back for more.

This is the danger inherent in social media, and it’s been extensively commented upon by many pundits and psychologists.

This bothers me deeply. It’s not the way I want my social media experience to work. But it’s felt nearly unavoidable if I want to talk about things that actually matter.

Instead, the way I am starting to see things, my Facebook profile is a place for me to share what I think or feel or like. And if I decide to share something others disagree with, that’s not necessarily grounds for having the discussion with bullhorns. In fact, it seems to me that posting something is not even necessarily giving permission to have a discussion at all!

I think it’s time to break my own cycle of driving engagement through triggering. So it seems like setting some boundaries is appropriate. But what could I do when someone wants to argue about something I shared?

  • I could simply choose not to respond. That’s fine, but I’m really not interested in letting someone rage on my own personal profile and then end the discussion with a view I don’t share.
  • I could simply delete any argumentative content. That seems disrespectful to them.
  • Or I can simply quietly disallow all comments on my postings, while simultaneously inviting discussion on private channels about those postings. That seems to be the most reasonable answer to me.

There are a few things about expecting people to participate in private discussions.

  • One is that it’s mano a mano – one on one – head to head – and there is nobody else to back you up. I’ve noticed that a side effect of the bullhorn discussion mode on social media is that you can usually count on people who agree with you to take your side, so you probably feel more free to take edgy positions, trusting that you won’t be out there on your own. As a result, it’s more intimidating to go head to head on private channels or face to face. You have to be much more careful in a private discussion, and more restrained, and more sure of your position and the related facts.
  • Two, as a side effect of the expected support for their positions, people are more willing to be overbearing when they feel supported in public discussions. This leads to rapid escalation. That won’t happen in private discussions.
  • Three, emotions tend to run lower in private, just in general. Emotion in a public discussion is a consequence of the escalation. When we’re cornered in public is when we lash out recklessly, just hoping to win a point or some breathing room in the discussion. Private discussions don’t make us feel like we have to retain some honor in front of everyone else.
  • Four, it’s less convenient. It takes determination and special effort to establish the communications, and some grit to follow through when the discussion is more complex and challenging. Nobody else will carry it through the moment when you might feel like backing off for a while.
  • Five, it’s slower. You can’t just pop off a snappy response and get back to life. This has the benefit that it forces you to think a little longer about what you’re about to say.

These very challenges about private discussions are a net good thing, in my mind. They require us to be more measured and polite. They require us to actually persist through difficult moments, and reach either some agreement, or a mutual respect without agreement. We’re far more likely to walk away as friends, than when we get into yelling matches in public.

So for these reasons, I’m increasingly drawing some boundaries around especially my Facebook discussions.

  • I’m not challenging people on their own posts and pages. It’s their page to say what they want.
  • I’m not opening my posts about controversial topics to discussion.
  • But I’m actively inviting discussion in private.

I’ve heard it said that boundaries are really only offensive to those who gain from someone not having them.

Please don’t see this as trying to avoid learning from others – I just don’t believe it is possible to have a fruitful learning experience in these public social media situations. As a matter of fact, I think that setting these boundaries will let me stay better and more fruitfully connected to people with whom I often disagree – so that I CAN learn from them without the escalation that seems so common. I am actively trying to avoid living in an echo chamber, but I’m unwilling to tolerate the angry free-for-all fist fight that social media seems to frequently become. So this change for me should calm the waters substantially, without requiring me to simply walk away from social media altogether.

As with all of my postings, I actively invite dialog on these thoughts – just not here in public. Let’s talk together if you agree or disagree. I’d love to get a different perspective.

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