My friend Jeremy and I chat every day on instant messaging. It usually starts off with a link, sometimes sports or news, but every once in a while, it goes political.
And sometimes we disagree on a political issue. It happens. And we go back and forth on it and there are often misunderstandings. Or jokes. Or a salient point that can’t be expressed easily without at least a paragraph of supporting text.
Now, Jeremy and I have known each other for about 20 years. 20. Years. We went to the same schools all of the way through college. We were roommates, at least for a while.
Yet we still have misunderstandings when we’re chatting away on the internet about tough political issues. I may come off as an evil bastard or he may come off as an unrealistic psycho (but we know it is mostly not true).
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Rewind a few years and I was in deep as a maintainer of an online community of a large group of conservatives on LiveJournal. To say the place was lively would be an understatement. During my involvement with the community, I cleared somewhere between 3–5,000 comments a year. That’s 10–15 comments a day, every day, including weekends and holidays.
I can tell you what I added with all of that effort: jack. squat.
People on the internet can come off as insane when in reality, they are just really, really bad at expressing themselves. And unfortunately the opposite is true too: the seemingly sane can come unglued in an instance.
I’ve fired a lot of angry people in my day but I can tell you that some dude from the internet makes me fear ever staying in or broadcasting the fact that I am near Pocatello, Idaho (not that I have plans to visit any time soon).
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The point is simple: the internet is a crappy place to discuss politics. Any substantial political issue is going to have some fairly deep points of discussion. For example, is social security failing and if it is, what should we do about it? Or, what do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Partiers? What are the implications of groups like this to the 2012 election and beyond? These are actually incredibly complex issues with multiple ideas, possible outcomes and philosophies surrounding the key issues.
That’s why most political posts are over-simplified pieces of garbage. And that’s why the comments associated with them get crazy too. And why smarmy or condescending Twitter and Facebook status updates are even worse than an over-simplified blog post.
It’s a perfect traffic ploy if you’re running a website that depends on traffic to drive advertising revenue though. Just put something up there about the President’s birth certificate or a certain former Alaskan governor’s new eyeglasses and you’ll have people coming back for weeks.
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I’ve had disagreements with people in-person about politics (and misunderstandings too) but not to the extent that can happen on the internet. When you’re talking to someone in person, you can tell pretty quickly how serious they are about issues, how much they know and, dare I say, how crazy they may be. You’ll know whether you’re talking to a gal who has run her own business for five years or the crazy guy on the bus wearing tin foil on his head. And I think you also talk to people in a more compassionate way. Words said by a person in front of you come off as less black and white and more like something someone with some intelligence said but that you may disagree with.
What does this have to do with work? Well, it is one of the reasons I don’t mind people having political discussions at work. As long as they both mutually agree to discussion, it doesn’t seem to be a problem with me. But HR folks seem to be prickly about it which is fine, I suppose. It just concerns me that we can’t seem to work well with people whom we may disagree with. I prefer competency, proficiency and skills over agreement on political issues and I think most people feel that way if you framed it that way.
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I don’t feel compelled to write about political issues outside of ones that directly impact the workplace. It doesn’t mean I’m not interested or not informed about it, either. But wasting a post about the political issue of the day or shooting out passive aggressive tweets? You’re probably going to execute it poorly. And this is from someone who has spent thousands of hours doing (and observing) just that. Trust me.
If you want to talk politics or world events for real, give me a call sometime and we can chat. If you want any more than a pithy or sarcastic comment this election cycle, that’s the best you’ll get from me. And you can thank me later for not having to spend 45 minutes writing out a response to my stupid political post.