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.