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Politics and the Internet

Do you remember the website LiveJournal? It was one of the first social networking sites (pre-MySpace and Friendster) and it was built around blogging. You could friend, unfriend, and there were larger communities of people with similar interests. If that sounds familiar, that’s because most of the conventions of social networking have been around for a long time.

I got into LiveJournal in 2002 via an invite (sound familiar, Google+?). In addition to personal blog posts, I also posted (a lot) about politics. And in doing that, I eventually became the moderator of the largest conservative political community on LiveJournal for a couple years (basically 2004-2005). That’s a bit entertaining for a couple of reasons. For one, while I was definitely heavily conservative leaning back then, I was probably in the bottom 25 percentile in comparison to most of the members. Another point was that I let anyone of any political persuasion post assuming they followed some basic guidelines (including that it was about conservative politics or thought).

This led to some rancorous posts. Hundreds of comments were typical. Name calling, trolling, baiting… it all happened there. And in the context of the relatively new Iraq war and a Bush re-election, it led a lot of people to lose their minds in this public forum. I (mostly) watched detached from the discussions going on and eventually moved on when I found a job and a more productive outlet for my energy (mainly this blog).

I only give you this history because the current debt crisis is the latest political issue to infect my social networks and I’ve generally made a pretty easy to follow rule: if you want to talk politics or religion, I generally won’t do it over the internet (or any written form). Why?

  • I observed people with unlimited character lengths not be able to fully explain the nuance of their political position. Twitter is the equivalent of pulling bumper stickers out of a drawer to have a political debate. It may be clever or make you laugh but the depth there is zilch.
  • People lose track of the fact that you’re a real person on the internet. When we’re in person, we often assume the best of people but looking at the black and white of text on a computer illicits the opposite effect. The internet robs us of some of that humanity and compassion.
  • There are no winners and losers in internet debates. Everyone usually loses because they spent time and emotional energy on something that could have been better used elsewhere. Nobody changes their mind on a major issue due to an internet debate. It takes time and humility to accept you may be wrong about an important issue. Notice neither one of those is someone typing in all caps in response to a posting they made.
  • Social media has become the e-mail forwards of yesterday. The amount of incomplete, out of context or simply untrue statements circulating is simply astounding. “I saw something on Facebook that said…” is the new “I got a forward from my crazy uncle that said…”

The fact is, writing about politics in a compelling, smart way takes a lot of practice just like anything else. So when I see the amateur stuff I see from social media acquaintances, I cringe a bit. And you can bet that a bunch of other people feel the same way too. It isn’t like this is new either. It has been going on since the dial-in BBS days too and certainly in all of my experience as being on the front lines of this phenomenon. The conversations haven’t improved or changed.

While I do think HR people should be more politically involved, it doesn’t mean you have to do it like an amateur on the internet. Here are three better ways to be involved:

  1. Be educated. Take in information from different sources and consider alternatives.
  2. Have discussions in person with people you know. Be patient and empathetic.
  3. Have a relationship with your political representatives. Give them feedback and get to know their aides.

I can tell you almost universally that arguing on the internet is a big fat waste of time. And when you add in the character restrictions of Twitter and Facebook, you just add fuel to the fire.

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