Beyond Cesspools: A_Framework_To: Constructive Conversations Online
A_FRAMEWORK_TO is a 3-Part series exploring the role of frameworks in breaking down complex cultural concepts to its parts.
Having Constructive Conversations online is. not. easy.
But that’s not to say it’s impossible.
Constructive Conversations can be defined as mutually-beneficial, prosocial dialogue. Sure subjective, but let’s call it any interaction that’s deemed positively reciprocal: productive, insightful, educational, etc.
The primary barrier to a Constructive Conversation — with strangers or even a loved one — is one’s Openness to even having one in the first place. Openness is not our baseline state after all.
So, what are the Barriers (B) to this Openness?
B1. Risk of Vulnerability:
Fear of feeling stupid or uneducated
Fear of being defined or valued by one moment
Fear of losing social credibility or currency
Fear of misinterpretation, i.e. losing control of your narrative
B2. Risk of Changing Relationships:
Fear of rejection at a human or values level
Fear of being unable to return from that moment
Fear of disrupting the equilibrium of a relationship
Fear of being seen in a new light
B3. Risk of Changing You:
Fear of being wrong or admitting weakness
Fear you can be controlled or manipulated
Fear that your opinion is fluid or for sale
Fear that if your opinion changes, you’re not who you think
These risks have long existed offline. But tech has not only brought (or amplified) these barriers online, but has also created new barriers to Openness... and therefore Constructive Conversations.
So, what are these new, differentiated Online Barriers (OB) to Openness?
OB1. Conversation Permanency:
Timelines, databases and logs provide a profiled track record — flipping on ideas could be easily detectable
OB2. Identity Crisis:
Your online, carefully manufactured persona could contradict your offline identity
OB3. Active Bystanders:
Wanted or not, there’s the potential of a popcorn moment (see: Michael Jackson Popcorn GIF)
OB4. Snowballing Conversations:
Your perspective can be judged or ganged up on from unintended or unwelcomed audiences
OB5. Shouting in a Crowd:
Because everyone has a voice, it can feel as if you have no voice, or that it doesn’t even matter
OB6. Flattening of Tone:
Nuanced emotions, language and social cues are stripped, making expression and/or interpretation more difficult
OB7. Asynchronous Timing:
Lag time between back-and-forth’s can impact the ability for a conversations to progress or flow
OB8. Misaligned Intentions:
Whether it’s skewed tone or time, or an unclear purpose, we can mistake one’s desire to actually want to engage
OB9. Conversation Manipulation:
Digital edibility or retraction can greatly change the context of the conversation
OB10. Access to (Super)Powers:
Material to influence a conversation is available to leverage in offense or defense
OB11. Ever-Present Distractions:
The internet distracts — there is incessant, omnipresent noise competing, making focus difficult
OB12. Set & Setting Shifts:
Where Set = mental state, and Setting = social environment — in light of distractions, our Set & Setting constantly changes
OB13. Speaking Incentives:
Some platforms are designed to encourage speaking, not listening — we need both to engage productively
As if the fundamental barriers to Openness (B1-3) weren’t difficult enough, these online dynamics (OB1-13) only intensify and complicate our ability to engage in healthy conversation.
If we want to replicate and foster the benefits of offline Constructive Conversation in an online environment, we need to re-interrogate what’s required to first unlock Openness. So, let’s step back.
Connecting ≠ Conversation
Besides the barriers (B1-3 + OB1-13), there are more fundamental Requirements (R) to reach Openness (on- and offline). We can’t just see solving for Openness as the goal. Openness is actually only a mid-point. We have to go backwards and firstly solve for these more important, pre-standing Requirements.
To penetrate all of these Barriers (B1-3 + OB1-13), besides time and energy, what Requirements (R) are needed to unlock Openness?
An agreement to be open and engage — enthusiasm or expectations aren’t even needed
R2. Self-Reflective Solitude:
Before engaging, we need space and time to gather thoughts, develop opinions, and understand ourselves
R3. Empathic Etiquette:
The capacity to be aware of and attempt to understand the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others
It’s not about taking turns — if you’re not talking, you’re still actively listening — focus is paramount
R5. Intimacy & Privacy:
A safe, trusted or predictable environment kindles assurance — social media, open and public, offers the exact opposite
So to foster Constructive Conversations online, we need to fulfill these Requirements (R1-5) for Openness.
However, much of the Solutions (S) we’ve seen deployed in the past don’t fulfill the Requirements — they only attempt to attack the Barriers (B1-3 + OB1-13).
Some historical Solutions have been...
S1. (Pseudo)Anonymity ➔ OB2. Identity Crisis
When identity is masked, there is no self conflict — if no one knows who you are online, it doesn’t matter who you are offline
S2. Ephemerality ➔ OB1. Conversation Permanency
When conversations are temporary, there’s freedom to express openly without fear of idea immortality
S3. Full Presence ➔ OB6. Flattening of Tone
When you can witness others’ facial experience or vocal inflections, there is increased understanding
S4. Real-Time Rooms ➔ OB7. Asynchronous Timing
When both parties are here, now, conversation flows quicker and all remain on the same page
S5. 1-1 Only ➔ OB3. Active Bystanders
When audiences are eliminated there’s less pressure to perform, and one can open up without further social risk
S6. Common Ground ➔ OB8. Misaligned Intentions
When expectations are set and a purpose is shared, increased productivity is possible
These Solutions can also be stacked. Add the Solutions (S1-5) together and we get something like Omegle. Just note: there are also downsides when multiple Solutions get combined (see: Omegle).
There are ways around these pitfalls though.
To get there: go back and fulfill those more fundamental Requirements (R1-5). So while Solutions targeting (B1-3) or (OB1-13) can help, we have to go deeper. Solving for the Requirements is paramount.
Here are more potential Solutions:
— Opt-Ins: require confirmation two parties want to engage
— Time Outs: require moments away from conversation
- Breathers: require moments to pause before responding
- Speed Bumps: add friction in high speed areas to slow things
- Individual Throttling: prevent super-users from taking over
— Audience Restrictions: control crowds by grouping recipients
— Status Indicators: express intent, mood, or availability
- Curriculum: digital etiquette and literacy when required
— Humanized Content: add personality and inflection to media
- Human Input: let users control their own Feed or algo.
- Community Moderation: divvy up the act of cleaning up to all
- Mirrors: reflect the message back for users to confirm
- IDs: ensure an individual (anon. or not) is behind an account
— Limited Distractions: scale down pings, posts or connections
— Incentivized Listening: prioritize reflection over reaction
— Nuanced Reactions: embrace richer spectrums of sentiment
— Identity Switching: switch between personas per audience
— Dynamic Avatars: set your photo based upon intent, mood or tone
— Community Creation: establish common-ground, curbing conflict
— Table Setting: set the table with gentle etiquette nudges
— Non-Binary Posting: see content beyond just live or deleted
These are just a start when solving for those Requirements.
As Bill Nye, Science Guy, put it,
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.”
While you don’t have to agree with what that person knows though, it’s advantageous to at least hear it.
You never know how it can change you. And change isn’t all bad.