Twitter Debates

14th July 2014

I’ve seen some truly horrible Twitter debates over the last few years and I’ve been involved in a few myself - just not for a while. I’ve stayed out because they don’t offer an outcome that I’m interested in. In the parlance that follows I have essentially chosen to leave the room more often than not. Thinking about it, there was a subconscious train of thought behind why and it’s taken a while for it to percolate down into this post.

Use Your Imagination For A Moment

Picture a room full of people, none of which you’ve met in person before. Each person can only say one full sentance at a time, everyone can talk at once and respond to any other persons sentance in whatever order they choose. Any person in the room can walk out at any time but comments made when they left the room are recorded for them to listen back later.

If it sounds like a cacophonic catastrophy that’s because it is. And THAT is how Twitter debates work, minus vocal tonality and visual gesturing which makes it easy to misinterpret how words are intended to be conveyed.

Debate vs Discussion

It’s generally considered rude to be interrupted and taking comments out of context is a well-know dirty practice in the media, yet in Twitter debates little regard can be definitively given to the context as reponses can only be directed to a specific 140 character comment. There’s also no indication when the other party is typing so it’s possible that faster typists or those in situations where they have time to respond more quickly1 can fire off multiple shots whilst the first party is still working on their first response.

In many respects it’s even impossible to call such discourse a debate at all. For it to be a structured debate you should have the following:

  • Nominate two people to talk to discuss the pros and cons of a specific issue (i.e. no other participants are allowed)
  • Each debater is provided a minimum amount of time to state their position without interruption
  • Each debater must allow the other an opportunity to respond without interruption
  • Once the debate has been fully delivered it may be opened up to anyone else to ask questions and each debater can choose to address them with answers

That’s Nice BUT I Don’t Want a Debate or a Discussion

More often then not I’ll post something I think is funny, topical or silly. I don’t really want a debate or a discussion about it. Feel free to start one of course but when people with tens of thousands of followers (i.e. not me) post that they like coffee (for example) they get all sorts of @mentions telling them why coffee is terrible or the one they drink is terrible or it gets personal and they are a terrible person for liking coffee or that they are a totally terrible person and its probaby because of the coffee. Meanwhile the original poster looks furtively around the room and wonders why they bothered saying anything about coffee in the first place.

Fearing reprisal the original poster refrains from responding and in the process of not responding is derided for not defending their position and eventually people either disengage completely from Twitter or just stop posting lest they get abused for having an opinion about anything.

They’re Not Trolls They’re Just at a Different Point on the Curve

I like to think that we’re all on a learning curve. Well, an infinite series of different learning curves that span all aspects of our lives, but yeah, a learning curve. Interacting with others on Twitter is an opportunity to engage with people but you have no idea where they are on their respective learning curve. They could have been on Twitter since day one, tweeted every day with dozens or hundreds of people, have learned how to balance opinions with their responses and learned to respect others, or they could be inexperienced, socially awkward and easily outraged.

I hate the terms "troll" or "jackal" because they’re simplistic, derogatory and dismissive. Most people just want to be heard and because of where they are on the learning curve may sometimes say something provocative in order to get a response from someone else. I try not to dismiss people in that situation because I used to be that person a long time ago and I learned that’s not the best way to get the attention that I was seeking. If I judge others that do that then I’m just judging how I used to be - albeit some time in the past. I never saw myself as abusive but then I am not the best to judge that of myself, let alone others.

I may well be my own harshest critic but then I also believe that everyone passes through that stage at some point. It’s only a question of when and how long they do it before they learn better.

No-one Makes You Follow Someone Else

We choose to follow who we choose to. If we don’t like what someone else is saying the answer is simple: don’t abuse them, don’t judge them, don’t be angry with them and certainly don’t track them down or tell them to die in a fire (although that last one’s become somewhat tongue-in-cheek of late). Unfollow them and move on. If you’re mingling at a party and you got bored with the conversation with one group you would just excuse yourself and go elsewhere or perhaps just quietly slip away… Is that so hard on Twitter without making a big fuss about it?

A: It’s not.

Twitter is a wonderful place to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet but it’s not a good place to have debate and a sub-optimal place to even have a discussion. Keep in mind everyone is in a different place on their learning curve with behaviour on Twitter. One final thing: why not cut some slack to the Twitter "personalities" that have thousands of followers they didn’t ask for. Chances are that hundreds of others will respond to their tweeted opinion anyway since all those other responders haven’t read this yet.


  1. Or they could be responding via a tablet or smartphone which is usually slower to type on or maybe they’re multi-tasking or wrangling children or have just started to drive between two locations and aren’t about to text and drive or if they’re driving they can’t use voice dictation due to screaming children in the back and the list goes on and on and on…