What Happened to the Conversation?
By Khalid Tayan
In modern times, it almost feels natural to find yourself opening the comments section of a post on Facebook. Or tapping, to read the replies to a tweet. The same goes for a long list of platforms: Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and so on. If you’re particularly curious, you might even look up the comments section of an article on its original news website. It is a natural human instinct to be curious about what others think. Whether this curiosity is fueled by a desire to understand other opinions, a need for affirmation or a search for conflict is immaterial. Modern social media aims to cater to all the above.
“Trump”, is all you have to see in a post to predictthe comments. Polarising on both sides, and both equally forceful in their conviction. As a detached bystander, you’d be justifiably confused in your assessment. Is Trump our saviour or is he to blame for all that is wrong in the world? Such is his depiction on these platforms.
This example sits as a metaphor for all social media commentary. What was first built as a well-intentioned outlet mechanism for users has developed into an arena of bitter and polarising talking points, no matter the context. Comments are used as joustings to contradict, antagonise and embarrass one another, all in the hope for likes. You might be left wondering if these commenters even believe what they are saying, or if they are just ruthlessly vying to become the top comment.
As a result of this regression, every political issue seems to find itself minimised into a left vs right battle. Football posts become a blind loyalty game to prove who can defend their own team the most senselessly. Tech discussions are Apple vs Android, and the list goes on.
No longer can users with public facing profiles in a public facing forum, converse naturally; free of bias and prejudgment without feeling as though they have given away ground to the opposition.
To begin to tackle this issue, we must first identify the contributing factors. In the comments sections or timelines found on social media platforms, users are craving for attention and affirmation from their fellow users through likes/retweets/upvotes. Whether this is for the right or wrong reasons, for the purpose of this debate, I argue that it does not really matter. These forms of interaction lay the foundation for polarisation. To begin with, in order to get likes, one must write something that you know will be supported.
To achieve this you find yourself using a commonly used talking point, or playing up to stereotypes, as opposed to expressing your honest and genuine view. In turn, getting likes and retweets gets you more visibility because of the way that the algorithms function. This increased visibility invites replies… and so the cycle continues. In this environment where attention can almost be compared to real money by the way it is sought after, it becomes a question as to whether this format of commenting can ever wield more positive results.
This construct does not allow for the vulnerability often required to have a conversation. Algorithmically, however, it goes so far as to punish attempts by downgrading these comments to the depths of your feed. This is not to say that social media platforms are at fault, so much as to say that it is simply the nature of the beast that we have created over time.
Social affirmation is something that we will never free ourselves of because of its truly engrained nature. It is also what allows social media to thrive to a certain extent. However, the mechanism of the ‘comments section’ can be adapted into something that does allow for more free thought, conversation, debate and banter, without fear of judgement. At present, most users will find themselves reading comments and replies but would never actually write one themselves. This is somewhat due to the construct of the comments sections as mentioned above. It is partly due to the time inconvenience of writing a comment and then being attached to it for the rest of the day while you wait for replies.
However, it is more so to do with the exposure and commitment that it takes to write a comment or reply. Reacting should not take courage, it should be second nature. And asking for people to engage, in public, with a constant audience is simply not to everyone’s liking and limits the accessibility of social media commentary to the minority, rather than the majority. Incidentally, this is also why you find that on Twitter users tweet an average of 4.4 times per day, while Facebook users only post 0.6 times per day. Twitter gives the illusion of a less public, more intimate setting with less exposure compared to Facebook, which in turn allows users to feel more comfortable in sharing their opinions.
In terms of alternatives, live streams have recently been proposed as a more exciting and real-time option for users to engage. However, part of me can not help but question the scalability of it. By design, live streams can only work for a handful of people at any one time. If you doubt this statement, I invite you to try and read or even reply to a user in a busy live stream.
What’s left? Whatsapp.
The only remaining option for users excited to chat about something that they have seen or read is to share directly with their friends or groups on Whatsapp. You can understand why – it’s private and comfortable, and they already know whether or not their friends will be interested. No need for a leap of faith. The social media landscape has evolved into a place where the majority do not feel comfortable airing out their thoughts to the public and their “friends” (most of whom they don’t really know). So it is no real surprise that messenger applications have become the primary outlet for these users. The regular, every day, social media users.
The only issue with this phenomena is that you are restricted to your closest pool of friends. What if your friends are not as interested as you are about the latest tech product launch? What if you’re bored with their same old opinions that never change? What if they don’t share your sense of humour? What if they take forever to reply? Finally, what if you just want to talk to someone who knows a little bit more about the topic?
We are talking about platforms that were not built for purpose. You might say that these are problems that you are always going to have but perhaps we could think about what an alternative solution would look like.
To begin with, we want to consume and react to news in the same place. We want to talk about something while we’re excited and in the moment, without having it drag out. We want to chat in a protected environment that’s detached from our profiles, real-life friends and of course, the general public. We want to chat in small groups in real time just like a normal conversation. We want to chat with people who are just as excited to talk about what we want to talk about.
The ideas described above would require an outlet that is time sensitive and instant to cater to a user’s immediate reaction when reading or discovering something for the first time. This would also solve the issue of a comments section debate that drags on and on to consume hours of your time; hours that most cannot afford to spend. The outlet would also have to be limited by the number of participants to avoid the overcrowding that causes users to vie for attention and instead allow users the space to actually engage with one another in a back and forth dialogue. Finally, users would have to be anonymous. Anonymity is too often oversimplified and only associated with negative and irresponsible behaviour. However, applied to a focused and intimate group, it could prove to be the catalyst for honest and free-flowing conversation to thrive.
Together, I think that these elements would form an ideal framework for having an engaging and free-flowing conversation between strangers brought together by a common interest. And whether it be a quick chat about a trending topic to see how others view a situation or the most niche of subjects where you suddenly find yourself embroiled in a fierce debate about a topic that you’ve never been able to talk to your friends about. You would finally have a place to go and talk about the things that matter to you.
As the founder of