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Why Bother Talking Politics on the Internet?

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"If you believe that you are going to get shot every time you leave the house, you may want to lay off the HuffPost." The meaning of this comment was clear enough: anyone who voices an opinion in public is asking to become a victim of gun violence. It went on, "When the food stamps stop flowing, you will wish you had weapons and the knowledge to use them." The meaning of this was less clear. At first I thought it meant that when liberals like me ceased to receive food stamps, we'd want to be able to go hunting. But upon further reflection, I decided it meant that when other people ceased receiving their food stamps, my neighborhood would be full of roving gangs seeking to rob me, and then I would wish I could shoot them (i.e., the insult was directed not at me but rather at poor people).

These menacing comments -- silencing threats, however hypothetical -- were not written by an anonymous troll on a blog post, but rather by a Facebook friend, in response to this insightful article that I had shared regarding the week from hell that started in Boston. We knew each other in high school, and I have no idea where either of us stood on gun control back then (I, for one, was too busy worrying about curling my bangs), but clearly the past two decades have seen us develop in different directions.

The exchange, in combination with a number of other unpleasant exchanges I've had in the past couple of years since venturing into Internet writing, made me think again about the purpose of public discourse -- both in small circles, like Facebook, and in larger circles like this one. I should say, I've been luckier than many who "Write While Female"; I've been called a bitch, of course, but have so far avoided death threats, charges that I deserve to be raped, and the like -- mostly because I remain relatively unknown. (As this article notes, trolls tend to come with success; online hate is a "rite of passage.")

But even without such extreme "trollisms," and even without regard to gender, I keep asking myself: what is the point of all this online talk? Why keep perpetuating "every facebook political argument you've ever seen"? (I'm a bait-taker and lazy activist, by the way.) People I disagreed with in college or seminary or grad school continue to disagree with me now; we have not changed each other's opinions in the slightest, sometimes even despite respectful and well-informed dialogue. My thinking certainly has changed in some ways as a result of my education and life events; for example, I became slightly less pessimistic about markets while working on my dissertation. But I have never radically changed an opinion as a result of a Facebook debate or an Internet post. If anything, I tend to experience opposing comments on my pages as hostile and aggressive; they shut me down rather than provoke creative thought.

Why, then, do I bother -- why do any of us bother -- to read and write anything of consequence on the Internet? Why not stick to cat videos and baby pictures? Well, the most obvious reason is that we can't help ourselves. Writers are people who write; they can't stop. Likewise, those of us who spend a vast amount of time on social networks do so largely because we can't help it, and once we are there, it is difficult for many of us (lurkers notwithstanding) not to post or comment on what we see. Given the largely involuntary nature of our online expressions, if we think that one thoughtful op-ed or 100 impulsive comments are going to change the world, we are kidding ourselves.

And yet, the world does change. Women in much of the world get to vote and own property. Citizens protest and countries pass new laws against violence that was once tolerated. Evangelicals change their stances about same-sex marriage. More and more people take a public tragedy as their cue for more - rather than less - interfaith dialogue.

This is not to say that we shouldn't raise consciousness about how we interact on the Internet. It is always worthwhile to become more aware of the impulses that motivate our behaviors. But when change happens -- and it will -- it will not be only despite (or because of) our best arguments, but also despite (or because of) our unconscious habits.