How to disagree on Twitter

There are a few rarely-questioned Internet truisms. One is “don’t feed the trolls.” Another is that Twitter is a place where real conversations go to die.

It’s certainly true that there are things about Twitter that make it really difficult for in-depth discussion, especially if that discussion involves disagreement. Twitter is fast-paced, character-limited, and almost entirely public. Feeling pressured to respond quickly and fit complex thoughts into short bits of text, people may express themselves unclearly. Others may jump in, take tweets out of context, and misunderstand the nature of the conversation or the opinions being expressed.

However, having had many productive disagreements on Twitter, I don’t believe that it’s impossible to do. It just takes some thought and practice. Here’s how.

1) Figure out if you actually want to have a conversation

I say this because a lot of people don’t. They may not want to for all sorts of reasons—it’s exhausting, they’ve tried before, it’s triggering, they’re worried that the person will treat them badly, they’re just too upset, they’ve got other things to do. But often, people feel expected or obligated to discuss sensitive topics with total strangers because they think they “ought” to educate them.

But you don’t. You don’t owe that to anyone, no matter how much you know or how well-spoken you are.

Other times people do want to engage, but they don’t want to discuss. Sometimes they just want to express anger at the person or tell them to shut up and leave them alone. I think this can sometimes accomplish a lot of useful things, but it’s not the same thing as having a conversation with someone in order to understand their view and educate them about yours. When responding to someone on Twitter—or anywhere, really—it can be helpful to have a clear idea of what exactly you’re hoping to accomplish.

2) Assume best intentions

If you’re hoping to have a substantive conversation with someone, this is as important as it is difficult. Try to assume that, as wrong as they are, the person you’re talking probably means well. If you’ve ever tried talking to someone who seems to be convinced that you’re a terrible person who wants to hurt them, you probably know that that doesn’t usually go so well. It takes incredible patience and confidence to continue to calmly engage with someone who seems to think the worst of them, and, unfortunately, few of the people we encounter online (or anywhere else) will have these qualities.

Assuming best intentions doesn’t mean you have to keep doing so in the face of contradictory evidence. Once someone has shown that they do not have the best of intentions—for instance, by continuing to use words you have said are hurtful, constantly interpreting everything you say in the worst possible light, or expressing a belief that you find completely, destructively abhorrent—you can safely go ahead and stop assuming that they’re basically a decent person who just doesn’t get the message you’re trying to deliver. At that point, having a conversation might not be possible.

3) Learn first, teach later

When you see someone being wrong on the Internet, it can be tempting to immediately tell them why they’re wrong. I fall victim to this temptation all the time. However, it can be more useful to first try to learn more about the beliefs that led them to say the wrong thing. Not only does it build rapport with the person—which can be useful for influencing their opinions later—but it also gives you valuable information about why people believe the things they believe. Even if you think you already know, you might still learn something new by asking.

This is especially important on Twitter, where criticism often seems to come from nameless, faceless strangers who are easy to just ignore (or perhaps lash out at). Opening with a question to learn more about the person’s opinions might make it more likely that they’ll listen to you later.

4) If unsure, ask for clarification

Many vicious arguments on Twitter stem from misunderstandings. I don’t mean the faux “I’m sorry if you were offended by my blatant racism” type of misunderstanding; I mean when character limits and missing tone/body language cues genuinely make it difficult to understand what someone is saying. If you’re unsure, try asking them to elaborate on what they meant. Sometimes, you’ll see the perceived gap between your stances shrink as they do so.

It’s important, too, to practice noticing uncertainty in yourself. Most people feel some amount of pressure to appear as though they know everything and understand everything, especially in the fast-paced, soundbyte (textbyte?)-driven world of Twitter. So sometimes we don’t even notice that we’re not actually entirely sure what someone meant by something they said. Not being sure is a good thing! It means you’re open to learning and reinterpreting.

5) Proofread your tweets…

The flipside of asking for clarification when you’re not sure what someone meant is proofreading your own tweets to see if they make sense. Character limits can force people to state things in ways that aren’t very clear, and, unfortunately, not everyone’s going to follow my previous bit of advice and ask what someone means if they’re not sure.

6) … but remember that you do actually have more than 140 characters

Although sending multiple tweets in a row can make a conversation confusing, it can, if done properly, be a lot clearer than one poorly written abbreviated tweet. To make it easier to follow your tweets, reply to yourself (and then delete the “@[username]” part) and label each tweet as “1/5,” “2/5,” and so on. When you nest replies like that, people will see the entire thread even when they’re looking at one tweet. That makes it harder to accidentally take your tweets out of context.

7) Be thoughtful about how you jump into others’ Twitter conversations

I’ve had a lot of my productive Twitter conversations—say, conversations with a guy who said something sexist—get suddenly derailed when a well-meaning, usually male friend or follower of mine jumps in with “SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU SEXIST PIECE OF SHIT.” At that point, several things happen: 1) the conversation stops being about sexism and starts being about Miri’s Mean Friend; 2) insults start flying in every direction; 3) everything that was productive about the conversation ends; and 4) I get really stressed because people are fighting in my mentions. Often, as a special bonus, the person I had been talking to associates my friend’s response with me and refuses to engage with me further.

Because Twitter is public but often facilitates very personal conversations, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of set etiquette about these types of situations. But generally, if you see two (or more) people engaging in a drawn-out, nuanced discussion with each other, really ask yourself if joining in might seem a little rude. It’s like a dinner party in that way.

8) Set boundaries with others and with yourself

Just like with any other type of conversation, a Twitter conversation can only be effective if your boundaries are being respected. For instance, if you can’t have a discussion with someone who keeps using a slur, ask them to stop using it. If they refuse, then a discussion probably isn’t possible anyway. (That’s why setting boundaries can also be a great way to see how amenable someone is to a respectful discussion before wasting too much time on it.)

But it’s also important to set boundaries with yourself. You know your own limits when it comes to discussing things with strangers on the Internet. How long are you able to spend on trying to change someone’s mind? Which opinions or types of rhetoric are you unwilling to tolerate? It can be really difficult to step away from a disagreement on the Internet—I’ve been there—but you alone can decide when it’s become too stressful, upsetting, or time-consuming for you.

Finally—and this should go without saying, but of course it doesn’t—if someone tells you they want to end a discussion, respect that. End it. Stop talking to them. Say “Okay!” and stop trying to get the last word in. You haven’t “won,” you’ve just had more energy or time or spoons than they did—this time around. Even if you think their reasons for wanting to stop are totally ridiculous, respect their boundaries anyway. And if you’re above the age of 10, don’t pull that “Well then you stop responding to me!” nonsense.

If all of this sounds kind of hard, that’s because it is. But it’s not actually all that different from how you’d have a productive dialogue in any other setting, online or off. The difference is that we’ve mostly established social norms for in-person conversations and, to a lesser extent, conversations that happen over long-form, private digital formats, such as email.

The brevity and anonymity of Twitter can make it seem like the usual guidelines for clear, respectful communication don’t matter anymore. But they do, and they can make the difference between an all-caps flamewar and an engaging discussion.

Photo via Keith Ellwood/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Miri Mogilevsky

Miri Mogilevsky

Miri Mogilevsky is a social work graduate student who writes about feminism and politics. She has a B.A. in psychology and writes a blog called Brute Reason.