When I first joined Facebook in 2008, my posts would typically read something like, “Elliott Rains is going to school … again!!” Nobody ever commented on, liked or probably even read these updates.

Nearly a decade later, I sit at my computer with two of my Facebook posts collectively approaching 200 comments. The times have certainly changed.

Each of these posts were prompts asking my Facebook friends to openly discuss two of the most polarizing figures in recent American political history: Donald Trump, who has openly supported torture, and Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. Given the generally hostile nature of this year’s presidential primaries, one might assume the contents of those 200 comments were equally hostile, agitated and not all that constructive.

Having grown up in a small, rural and mostly conservative village and now attending a public university in one of the most liberal cities in the country, I have collected a diverse group of Facebook friends over the years.

Many people might question why I did such a silly thing in the first place. Nick Bilton, a New York Times writer, called social media arguments “Can’t-Win Propositions.” When interviewing fellow journalists, Bilton was even told, “The rule about engaging is that you should never engage.” Some respondents noted the format and immediacy of social networks cause misunderstandings.

According to Bilton and his interviewees, the nature of social media, along with the way in which people have grown to use them, has created this mentality where it is better to say nothing at all than to possibly engage in a controversial dialogue. In other words, the most civil and safe social media are not social at all.

However, a recent study by the University of Delaware suggests that social media comments and discussions might influence voters’ perceptions of candidates. Though the findings are limited and relatively new, the idea of political discussions among friends and family that shift narratives and shape opinions is not all that radical.

Knowing a Facebook comment might help determine who will be written about in history books centuries from now should be enough to dismiss the idea of “can’t-win” posts. However, there is still much apprehension when it comes to commenting on somebody’s meme about Bernie Sanders taking kids’ lunch money.

After reading and responding to all 200 comments, you might be surprised how civil and productive the discussions were. As a whole, I believe a lot was won in the proposition of engaging. Many of my ultra-conservative friends from high school conversed with many of my ultra-liberal friends from college in a civilized and constructive manner. Though I can’t attest to anybody’s personal opinions being changed, it was visibly apparent that many involved in the discussion got something out of the experience. A Sanders supporter talked with a Republican about progressive tax brackets; a vocal Trump supporter and a Sanders activist discussed their mutual distaste for Hillary Clinton’s political history.

None of these constructive conversations would have taken place if my friends, family and I had embraced the mentality that social medias are not suitable environments for political discussion. Had we accepted the criticisms that the technologies underlying social networks like Facebook and Twitter breed conflict and hatred, we would have lost out on educational and enjoyable social interaction. If we willingly accept the narrative that the only types of discussions we can have as a society on social media are superficial or silent, we might squander one of the most revolutionary social developments in human history.

Never before has a technological platform enabled 200-plus interactions between so many complete strangers, allowing them to engage with one another on a globally impactful process — much less on a random Wednesday night in March. By collectively shifting the narrative to one of mutual respect, understanding and civic engagement, the participants in the 200-plus interactions were given the motivation to participate harmoniously. The affordances of social media were used not as enablers to “can’t-win” hostility but to possible democratically influential connection.

In both 2008 and this past week, it was clear to me that we as citizens — be it students, factory workers or CEOs — shape the future of social media. Though its affordances present us with new opportunities and experiences, we ultimately dictate how those affordances will be put to use.

I am all in favor of dog memes, sports highlights and birthday wishes taking up a portion of our news feeds. But, I can’t help but think it would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to change human history with a political Facebook post every now and then.

Elliott Rains can be reached at erains@umich.edu.

 

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