Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment.  Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well.  This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.

A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject.  That’s a fair point, but not persuasive:  after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too.  Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.

Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism.  As he puts it:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. 

It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem.  Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t.  You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty.  Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails.  Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online.  But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.

I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode.  I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.

But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more.  In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next.  I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.

The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves.   This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad.  I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict.  But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation.  Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.

To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch.  People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning.  But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there.  While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction.  Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop.  Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.

But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this.  It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.



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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I don’t know if this has been mentioned anywhere, but I think that since people have been fired for saying dumb things online, they’re more reticent to share certain opinions as news about scrubbing one’s social media profile gets around. I don’t know about your field, but about 5 years ago there was a fairly aggressive push in medicine to “be careful little doctor what you tweet.” I know I’ve been a lot more careful since I got hired by an organization whose CEO is a pretty active twitter user. We’ve followed each other long before I even applied and there are very few tweets that I’ve withheld solely because I think my boss(es) will read them, so it’s not like I’m trying to hide anything, But it’s still been weird meeting people this week who say, “glad to meet you in person after following you on twitter for a while!”


  2. When we talked about this a little earlier you mentioned the tiredness of interacting with people that want to fight all the time. And I think that is really at the root of when I decide to not share things or confront others about some false rumor they are spreading.

    I enjoy having a good discussion even when I disagree with people because I often learn something or gain a new perspective. But people who enjoy fighting for fighting’s sake. Well it only takes one or two of them in your friend list to decide to not bring something up.

    And even people that are otherwise reasonable and enjoyable often have a pet issue that they want to engage with.

    I wonder if it matters much between the balance of how many people you know in person vs the people that you only know online.

    Facebook for me is mostly people I know in person, but twitter tends to be more people that I only know online. I like the format of facebook that allows for longer conversations, but my experience is that facebook (with a few exceptions) does not actually have good conversations. While twitter which seems to be less helpful because of character limits, I have (or listen to) good conversations fairly often.


  3. The rude and intolerant behavior is exhibited by all kinds of views. Take the link to Erick Erickson’s post for example, while he complains about the intolerance of other conservatives, I can comment on the site in which his article is posted because I am blacklisted there. I went there to respectfully discuss my nonconservative views with conservatives and before I knew it, my comments were blocked.

    I’ve seen intolerance from liberals and even leftists as well. And part of it is due to the lack of accountability on the web. Anyone can be anonymous and when you aren’t anonymous, nobody knows your location and you can make any accusation others you want.

    Certainly the fringe benefits of the technology contributes to this. But perhaps so do the cultural values that come from our economic system as well. For what our economic system preaches is self-interest and self-interest alone. And while promoting self-interest, it preaches against interdependency and a collective consciousness. The promotion of self-interest is usually practiced at the cost of the spirit of sacrifice and self-control taught by morals.

    Thus, when we combine the technology enabled ability to hide with the stress on self-interest, why should we be surprised by rude and intolerant behavior on the blogs?


  4. The public messengers of social liberalism do tend to be a rather nasty bunch. And yet this does not seem to be the slightest hindrance to the advance of social liberalism among the population at large. Count it as another data point against the “Christians lost the culture because they weren’t nice enough” meme.*

    *Again, being sensitive and respectful towards others may be good in itself, as I think it is. But the lack of such virtues is not a particularly important cause for decline among the Western churches.


  5. Alastair J Roberts August 30, 2014 at 10:03 am

    I love that Matt is blogging about social media and blogging. How the mighty are fallen! ;-)

    I’ve taken up these issues in detail in various places. See, for instance, here, here, here, and here. I think that your hypothesis is spot on and is one that I have argued in various of the posts I have just linked.


  6. These are good points. I also appreciate the acknowledgement of the same kind of political correctness being enforced in conservative circles. A friend of mine is a pastor in a conservative Presbyterian denomination, where insufficiently conservative pastors are routinely charged, tried, and convicted by the “Presbytery of the Internet”. He noted that there’s almost no space left in which one can articulate a nuanced approach to a particular issue. I suspect that this is no small factor in the conversions to Catholicism of a number of evangelical scholars. Sadly, there is little appetite for creative intellectual work in evangelical circles these days.


  7. The problem with social media is the blurring of the line between “friendly”, which you are with work colleagues, acquaintances, and casual neighbors (and, sometimes, family members), and FRIENDS – those people you associate with, due to being sympatico with their views and ideas.

    Social media has not created, but REVEALED the true distance between ourselves and those we know. For most non-Liberals, it’s business-as-usual – we already knew that we had a different slant on life. The surprise, for us, is that so many people agreed with us.

    For Liberals, it’s a Political Ice Bucket Challenge – a cold slap of water to their rosy assumption that their thinking was the normal, ONLY thinking possible – unless, of course, you were talking about Troglodytes. The idea that someone they actually KNEW, who had an education, and a respectable job, and lived in a neighborhood they approved of, could have those – RETRO, WRONG-HEADED, HORRIBLE opinions – gives them the vapors.

    Their entire life view has capsized. They are on shaky ground, and scarcely know what to do. Unwittingly, they have surrounded themselves with people who voice non-PC thinking. It never occurs to them that politeness, unwillingness to risk a job, or interfere with a relationship might have been the cause of the non-Liberal withholding their true self.

    No, there MUST have been a change to that person – after all, they KNOW what they thought – or SHOULD have thought, given their socio-economic status. The only explanation is that they have been corrupted by the likes of Limbaugh and other Demon-Creators.

    Naturally, they viciously attack, not the idea, but the person. Only by doing so will they exorcise the non-Liberal Demon.


  8. I got off both Facebook and Twitter. They both remind me of the “Tower of Babel.” When I talk to believers I like to share what Jesus is doing in each of our lives and give Him the glory. When I share with non-believers I like to ask them questions about who they believe Jesus is. This is better done in person!


  9. […] people whose work I follow. Here is Freddie deBoer lamenting the rhetoric of the left, and here is Matthew Anderson noting much of the same on the right. Here is Alan Jacobs on why he’s […]


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