Rivalry Online

Person in yellow sweater using laptop computer.
Unlearning the Ways of the Keyboard Warrior

So it happened again. You’ve put something on social media, thinking it shows who you are and what you believe. You hoped that your thoughts, original or not, would get people thinking and engaged, and you went off to do something else.

And then your phone dings. Non-stop. The little bell icons and red bubbles stack up as strangers bombard your feed with brutal takedowns of your opinion.

Or maybe it’s not a swarm of strangers. Maybe the takes aren’t so brutal. If they were, it’d be easier to brush them off. The comments that stick with us are the ones from friends and family, like little daggers instead of big hammers.

“That opinion is pretty ridiculous.”

“I’d be so ashamed of myself if I posted this.”

“You’re showing how little you know.”

“Seriously, you should know better.”

Next thing you know, you’re typing away again, defending your opinions and explaining why the commenters are in the wrong. After an hour, you’re left feeling hurt and drained. The thread ends in a superficial truce or an “agreement to disagree,” but no one’s changed their minds and you don’t exactly feel proud of yourself. In fact, you feel a deeper wedge between you and others than ever before.

It’s an all-too-common pattern, causing us to throw up our hands and cry, “Who will save me from this keyboard of death?!”

Who, indeed? The answer, of course, is you. Let’s talk about how.

When you’re about to post on social media or respond to comments on your computer, what’s fueling you?​

The Rivalry at the Root

We’re all familiar with how online communication affects our behavior. Part of the problem is the parasociality or one-sidedness of our relationships.

Being part of the same fan page or sharing the same political opinions can make us feel connected to people whom we don’t really know. On social media, all we have in common with some people is our sense of belonging to a cause, and so we behave in ways that strengthen that sense of belonging.

One common behavior is “virtue signaling.” It’s a much-maligned phrase, but it describes something we all do: we use our behavior to show others in our group that we think what they think, value what they value.

Online, it could mean expressing strong opinions or engaging in heated arguments with people who disagree with us. When we argue on the internet, it’s usually not because we want genuine change. We’re more often defending the status quo, re-proving our belonging to the people we already agree with.

So we typically find ourselves in one of two different types of conflict. We clash with people we care about because we need to share the same values to do life together. But we also get into conflict with those we don’t care about, not for the sake of changing their minds or deepening communal bonds, but just because it feels good to feel different, to say they’re wrong.

This first type of conflict is necessary. It strengthens our communities and helps us grow together.

The second type of conflict is purely self-serving; we mistake the exhilaration of rivalry with the act of doing good. In reality, we’re only drawing bolder lines around the camps we already belong to.

Our "truest self" longs to be in contact with wonder, truth, and goodness. For the sake of those deeper values, we can handle being wrong while creatively overcoming our biases.

Check Your Gut: Who Do You Want to Be?

When you’re about to post on social media or respond to comments on your computer, what’s fueling you? Is it outrage at injustice? Worry about where society is heading? Pride in your evidence that others are wrong?

What if you dig deeper? Do you really believe this person will change based on what you say? Who are you hoping will see and read this comment you’re working so hard on? What would make you feel proud of this?

These questions might make you uncomfortable and reveal that your motives aren’t as pure as you think. That’s ok; we’re only human.

Most of us don’t think this deeply before posting, and that’s by design: media journalist and scholar Michael Serazio has written about Elon Musk’s ambition to make ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) the most “authentic” social media platform.

To Musk, authenticity thrives in “a space with no social guardrails, where any inhibitions of decorum are ignored in favor of speaking, authentically, from the heart… [where] strangers will stop being polite and start getting real [and] don’t feel like they have to bite their tongue and act nice.” It’s a space where everyone assumes that getting mean is the same as “getting real.”

How often are we driven by that same desire to speak “authentically” with the first, fiery thing that comes to mind? How many of us associate our “true selves” with our most immediate and intense reactions? Don’t we all long to be “unfiltered”?

But brain science doesn’t back this up. The “authentic self” is neither immediate nor unfiltered. If anything, we are least ourselves in those moments of first response. Our brains take time to attune to others, to get curious.

Our “truest self”—our humanity at its most thoroughly human—longs to be in contact with wonder, truth, and goodness. For the sake of those deeper values, we can handle being wrong while creatively overcoming our biases.

How (Not) to be Right on the Internet

If social media tricks us into believing the first thing to fly from our mouths represents our most “authentic self,” then a massive step towards handling online conflict is to step back from that lie.

Resist the designed rivalries of online technology by practicing these three habits:
1. Lead with the facts.

Check what you’ve said and what they’ve said. Make sure all the relevant details are out in the open. This might mean admitting to being wrong about a few details.

If even after such efforts you can’t agree on what’s true, it’s better to unplug from the argument.

If you can, though, go a level deeper and…

2. Lead with your loves.

Most earnest arguments aren’t over what the facts are, but over what they mean.

Instead of converting this person to your value system, try to get them to state what their values are. Ask questions about what’s important to them, what they love. You may find surprising common ground.

3. Appeal to your hope.

Even with facts and values in common, you likely won’t agree on the best course of action. By sharing your values and stating what you hope for, you can keep the conversation future-oriented.

Shift the focus off the fears of the present, onto a future that you expect belongs to both of you. A future where you’re friends. What would it take to get there?

You do not always need to be right. What you want to be is wise.

Social media wants you to respond with your gut, and tells you that this intense first response is your real response, your true self.

Don’t believe that lie; your authentic self is deeper down, in the calm place where you ask questions and find compassion for others. If you dig into that place, you’ll change the ways you show up to hard conversations.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please consider reading “UnRival Your Perspective: Navigating News, Partisanship, & Your Peace of Mind.”

Want to learn more about how unRival Network is disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.

Hold onto hope with us.

When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

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