How to Navigate Social Media (without Being a Mansplaining Troll)

Several years ago when I was relatively new to Twitter, I had an exchange over an email list and Twitter that resulted in one person blocking me on Twitter and my virtual relationship with the other cooling significantly. Both women are black, and we share educational and social advocacy goals and ideologies.

I regret that deeply, even several years later.

Initially, I focused on my own intentions, attempting to explain away the tensions as misunderstandings. That, in fact, caused greater divides because I wasn’t listening to their concerns and had not fully embraced a key element of the situation—good intentions are never enough.

Particularly about my experiences on Facebook, I think often about this situation because I regularly delete comments on my posts. The people whose comments I delete typically claim I am censoring them or that I am too weak to engage in debate or ideas with which I disagree.

However, I view social media as an extension of my professional scholarly Self, a key element in my role as a public intellectual. Therefore, my virtual spaces are mine, and I am vigilant about keeping them free of inflammatory and baseless comments.

My social media spaces are where I offer strong and even provocative (or inflammatory) positions—what some will call “opinions”—but I take great care to offer evidence-based positions.

I include evidence and links when I post online, in part to model the sort of discourse I believe everyone should practice and in part as an extension of my role as a teacher.

Despite ridiculous claims recently after the Kavanaugh appointment, the real and virtual worlds remain mostly hostile places for women—and that hostility remains primarily driven by angry men who tend to be poorly informed or even wildly misinformed.

This culture of mansplaining and trolling exposes that far too many men think that by the mere fact that they comment, they should be regarded as equal to anyone else posting; in other words, mansplaining and trolling are the perverse logical conclusion of the marketplace of ideas, that all voices count.

Here, I want to examine how anyone (but especially men) can navigate social media in ways that avoids mansplaining and trolling. While I will often frame this in terms of men commenting in women’s virtual spaces, the concepts below are valuable in all types of social media interactions.

Do not comment on someone’s post to disagree with the original post unless you have counter-evidence. Does the post offer evidence for the claims in the post? If so, can you discredit that evidence? If you have no counter-evidence or cannot refute the evidence offered, your rebuttal is mere trolling. Does the original post offer no evidence? Then consider seeking out credible evidence yourself. Asking other people—particularly professional women—to do the work you should do on any topic is also trolling.

Do not change the topic of the original post so you can hold forth on your pet peeves. If a post on social media raises concerns about Trump’s administration, your thesis on Hillary or Obama is not relevant, or welcomed. This form of trolling is hijacking someone else’s social media space.

Resist posting memes, especially gotcha memes. Memes lend themselves to those who zip through social media frantically, but that ease of posting also feeds into lazy thinking and commenting. Those of us who try to navigate social media well and credibly tend to view all memes with skepticism. A great strategy is to thoroughly vet all memes; simply searching online for a few minutes can discredit (or confirm) all memes. One of the worst aspects of memes is the use of quotes by notable people; meme quotes tend to be fake, misattributed, or gross misrepresentations of the person being quoted. You may want to reconsider your H.L. Mencken meme quotes and those Hitler analogy quotes all together, in fact.

Respect people posting as professionals online as the professionals they are. Regularly, I witness people rushing to explain things to someone on social media who is, in fact, an expert on the topic. In the rush to correct or explain, people often fail to investigate the person to whom they are responding. This is especially disturbing when the expert is a woman—and the counter comments seem mostly driven by assumptions a woman is mistaken (or can’t be a sociologist, etc.).

Honor with extra care the social media spaces of women—especially if you are a man. The first rule of responding on social media is to check yourself about responding; it is always a good idea to pause, consider why you want to respond, and when responding to a woman, ask yourself if you would have the same urge to respond to a man. Another good idea is to avoid responding in most cases. Instead amplify the post (retweet, share, etc.) or simply offer a “like.” None the less, always avoid the “well actually” response (basic mansplaining) along with asking the woman (as noted above) to do the labor you should have done yourself to investigate the topic or claim.

Avoid the “both sides” approach to issues. Many, if not most, issues are either way more complex than two sides or have only one credible side. No social media debate is made better simply because you are the brave soul willing to launch into the “other side,” or to play devil’s advocate. These are lazy ways to discuss and typically are cover for, you guessed it, mansplaining and trolling.

Don’t fall victim to the “let’s agree to disagree” stance. A cousin to the “both sides” approach is the “let’s agree to disagree” pose that seeks to make all positions carry the same weight in terms of credibility. Once again, if you have no credible evidence for your position, there simply is not anything to agree about.

Respect other people’s virtual spaces. Since I view my social media spaces as extensions of my professional/scholarly Self, I monitor them carefully and also keep them as free as possible of offensive and false discourse and claims. It is my space. If you have something you feel compelled to express, avoid using other people’s virtual spaces, and instead, that is why you have social media.

Navigating social media spaces is fraught with problems unique to social media—anonymous bravado, a warped democratization of voices and ideas, ease of access and commenting—but those spaces are also as vulnerable (if not more so) to the problems of the real world, sexism and racism just a couple to note.

While examinations such as this are unlikely to sway those eager to mansplain and troll, I think the guidelines above can help all of us who are sincere about a market place of ideas where those ideas and their credibility are judged less by our biases and assumptions, and thus driven instead by a careful and full analysis of the available evidence.

Advertisements

Adventures in Social Media: Privileged Edition

Social media platforms are microcosms of our broader society, and as a result, those platforms are often toxic for women.

This is my story of social media, a story of privilege that in no ways ignores or endorses the misogyny found routinely on social media.

My experiences are in many ways an inverse reality to how women are marginalized, mansplained, and harassed—while also reflecting the good, the bad, and the ugly of virtual experiences.

I was very hesitant about joining Twitter and Facebook until I recognized how many scholars and creators used these platforms in ways that are more professional than social. I had no interest in the “social” of social media.

Boosted by venturing into my own blogging platform with WordPress at the very end of 2012, my Twitter adventures began in early 2011 as a way to join the scholarly and creative communities I value as well as a way to amplify my writing, to build an audience.

I have been surprised that my blog (10,000+ followers) has attracted significantly more followers than my Twitter account (almost 6000 followers), but I also have learned some important lessons about a virtual existence through my distinctly different experiences on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media are, of course, designed to be interactive so my blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page all attract comments. Here is where I experience interesting differences.

Let me interject first that I have joined social media as a writer and (for lack of a better term) as a public intellectual mostly concerned with literacy, education, equity and social justice, and the inequities of classism, racism, and sexism. However, I have not joined social media to have discussions or debates with people who have no expertise or experience in the areas I address (keep this in mind as I discuss my experiences below).

Well before joining social media, in fact, I had rejected the idea that issues are debatable just because someone will debate; in other words, many issues simply do not have two or several credible sides. For example, I do not debate corporal punishment just as I would not debate a Holocaust denier.

Further, when an issue or topic does warrant debate, I also refuse to engage with anyone who isn’t credible because by doing so the debate stage presents those engaging as equal. This was a recurring problem when I wrote a book on school choice and was regularly asked to debate choice advocates, almost all of whom had no experience or expertise in education—were in fact simply ideological choice advocates.

As everyone has, I imagine, I have contentious and negative exchanges across all my platforms. I made mistakes, but I also have been accused of intentions and actions that I never held or enacted. Some of these experiences have been beyond my control, and others, I deeply regret being complicit even when having good intentions.

Overall, I feel more and more regret about the antagonism and nastiness that characterizes social media. In my experience, though, I witness very little of that on Twitter while I must routinely delete comments on my Facebook page—from the same people who do not meet my guidelines above but refuse to recognize they are invading, un-welcomed, another person’s social media space, a space that I use primarily as a professional record.

Twitter has been recognized as a toxic environment for women, seemingly fertile ground for trolls and misogynists. Twitter, for me, has been mostly a vibrant community among people I admire and respect—a virtual library and classroom. Few of my exchanges there are negative.

The sources of those differences, I think, are first and foremost my privileges as a white man, and then significantly the distinct differences between my Twitter and blog followers and Facebook friends. Audiences matter.

These distinct experiences have made me think very seriously about the problem with the marketplace of ideas argument, the retort from those whose comments I delete (for being false claims or simply personal attacks) that I am not engaging because I refuse to listen or entertain different ideas.

The problem with a simplistic view of the marketplace of ideas is the same as the problem with school choice—or any market.

Market outcomes are directly the result of the consumers driving that market; ideological and ill-informed consumers create outcomes unlike informed and ethical consumers.

The market, capitalism, is an amoral dynamic. The only ethic is the ethic of supply and demand, and outcomes are not right or wrong on some moral spectrum but completely at the whim of the consumers, regardless of their experiences, expertise, or moral/ethical intent.

Setting aside Henry David Thoreau’s libertarian streak, his “Civil Disobedience” makes a compelling case against the tyranny of the majority (specifically that a majority in the U.S. allowed slavery) and argues:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

On balance, I value very much social media even as I recognize how those platforms reinforce my own confrontation of my privileges and create tensions in some spaces, tensions I fear cannot be alleviated.

My more tightly controlled (and ideologically similar) social media environments—blog and Twitter—are mostly a good experience for me, but Facebook, more representative of the general public, is not; Facebook is often frustrating and a drain on my time spent monitoring that false and offensive comments are not visible on my space.

My major take away so far in this adventure in social media is recognizing why I am on these platforms, and then remaining vigilant about the fidelity of my spaces—spaces not open to the whims of others who hide behind the tyranny of the marketplace of ideas.

Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I would like to call Chenjerai Kumanyika my friend and colleague, but when I shared his excellent open letter to Dabo Swinney with my students, I stumbled over exactly how to describe our connection, which is entirely through Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, a significant amount of my professional and personal connections are now virtual. I have met Diane Ravitch and Paul Gorski in person once each, but my contact with them remains an electronic venture.

I would be hard pressed to list all the people I count as friends and professional colleagues who I have never met in person.

And just this morning, I shared an article with a former student, current friend who asked how I found so many good articles—to which I replied, social media.

My mornings are filled, in fact, with my Twitter and Facebook feeds—treasures of commentary and research that fuel my teaching and writing in ways that I could never accomplish on my own.

The incredible “good” of social media is that it is my daily education among the smartest and most diverse teachers possible. As much as I love and value my formal education and all my teachers and professors in the real world, it pales to my virtual daily education.

But, of course, there is the “bad”—and the “ugly.”

That often is blurred, but it certainly is a range.

When I post a blog or comment on social media, I often receive, even from “good” people, smart people, responses that reveal how social media lends itself to careless and lazy conversations.

People respond without reading the posts, or if they do read, their responses are about what they want to say, not what the post is about.

People respond to their assumptions about me—and, again, not to the content of the post.

Often, people responding assume that since I teach at a selective liberal arts college, my expertise or voice is anchored in that privilege—only.

My 18 years as a high school English teacher and coach—responding to 4000 essays and an additional 6000 journals per year—rendered invisible. My working class background, my redneck past, also invisible.

The really “ugly” comes from those who project—casting their own weaknesses and biases onto my work, and me. It is here that there is no dialogue, there is no hope of anyone learning anything.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of social media may be the inevitable given of the media—and I think on balance I am willing to tolerate that range.

Social media is very accessible, and very fast, as a way to interact with people, research, commentary, and information.

I suppose we cannot be angry that responses are equally fast, and thus, sloppy, careless, and just plain lazy as well as mean and belligerent.

It may benefit us all to slow down, and also step back, as we navigate the virtual world. Because even the virtual world cannot assuage the dangers of “assume”—making an ass out of you and me.