Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

[This article is based on the presentation I gave on Facebook communication at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the presentation here.]

Communication is difficult. We learned to speak a couple of languages, we maybe learned some public speaking. But most of us never learned to really emphatically and effectively communicate with others.

Online communication is even more difficult. There are screens between you and me. When we communicate on social media, we only have our words and our smileys to convey our actual feelings and attitudes – and not the body language that we can use in real life. So yes, it’s hard.

A discussion on Facebook can be a friendly exchange of thoughts. It can also be a little bit more aggressive, but still a “sportive” boxing match. Or it can be a downright mean and nasty shouting match. That is the dark side. It is very easy to get to the dark side on Facebook, and very damaging. When a discussion turns nasty, nobody wins: not us, not the other people participating in or reading the discussion, and not the animals.

When we see a conversation turn nasty – or when we think a conversation might turn nasty (given the subject or our own sensitivity about the subject), we have three options:

facebook light flight fight

Choosing Fight means going into the discussion head on, not caring much about civility or friendliness. It means letting your feelings (anger, aggression, irritation) speak the way you feel them. It usually doesn’t result in anything good.

Choosing Flight is ignoring the comment or the entire discussion. You just leave, maybe because you think it’s useless, or because you want to avoid nastiness.

Choosing Light means retaining your self-control, and – in spite of potential nastiness from the other side – remaining friendly, empathic, and rational. It’s often very hard to do.

My suggestions are:

  1. stay in the light as much as you can (unless it’s a time-waster)
  2. if you can’t, choose flight
  3. but don’t fight

Here are ten things you can do (you don’t have any control over what others do) to help keep the conversation on the light side, and not trigger others:

  1. be aware that how you say it trumps what you say
  2. be nice
  3. have a sense of humor, no matter how serious the topic is
  4. listen
  5. be open-minded
  6. use phrases like “in my opinion,” “I believe,” “I think,” rather than sounding like you’re stating everything as facts
  7. think about the other people as human beings with actual needs
  8. take your time to reply. Facebook allows for this.
  9. avoid judging, shaming and guilt tripping
  10. avoid sarcasm. it’s fun, but it doesn’t help

When a conversation turns sour, that may be (partly) because of you, but there are also situations where even when we try to stay in the light with all our might, other people will continue to behave downright nasty (yes, it does happen). In that case, don’t forget your options to unfriend, unsubscribe, unfollow, and if all else fails, just block the person so they stop existing for you.

Here is the full presentation






9 thoughts on “Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

  1. Tobias, what percentage of online “discussions” have you found ultimately turned out to be time-wasters? In my experience, the percentage is so high as to warrant avoiding them all together.

      1. The impact of a discussion in a public forum isn’t just measured by any perceived value by the people directly involved…….but also all the people reading it.
        The indirect impact of a discussion can be potentially large if it gets indexed by search engines.

  2. Tobias: Many thanks for this post. I read it with great interest, as I’m often astonished by the amount of high-voltage contempt, sanctimony and ridicule I see both vegans and meat-eaters spewing at one another on the Internet. (I don’t use Facebook, so I have no idea what happens there.) So disheartening and, what’s worse, it’s the animals who continue to suffer, in spite of even the most well-intended and inspired discourse. I admire your suggestion that we reject the fighting mode, and, if we can’t stay in the light, simply remove ourselves from the discussion. Great call!

    One question that springs from your and Matt’s remarks, above: do you think online activism (which sometimes occurs through interactive online discussions, but can also include petitions, awareness campaigns, blogs, etc.) is as helpful to the animals as face-to-face efforts (e.g., leafleting and paid-per-view)? Or do the two types of activism work best in concert, as complements to each other?

    1. hi elizabeth,
      i’m not sure if it’s possible to answer that question. are you talking about influencing one person, and how real life compares to online? i think each have some advantages and disadvantages, though i feel i’m more leaning towards real life, as it can make interaction easier (but it can be harder for the other person to safe face, and may thus feel less “safe” than being behind a screen).
      more in general, it’s easier with online (and other non-online, but mass media work) to reach many people at the same time, with less effort. the only way to reach many people “live” is through a talk to an audience, i guess, which few activists do….

      1. Hi, Tobias:

        Thanks so much for your response. My question springs from a concern about quality vs. quantity. I.e., online activism is exciting in its potential to reach so many people, as opposed to in-person activism, which is necessarily more limited in scope. That said, I sometimes worry that online communication gets lost in cyberspace, where so much information is whizzing around already. With face-to-face activism, it seems a bit more possible to reach people in a substantive and lasting way. Just a thought.

        I greatly enjoyed the video of your conference presentation–thank you for sharing!

  3. Hi Tobias, I just recently discovered your site. I appreciate your work very much, I’m of the same opinion as you when it comes to activism. I was hoping to get your perspective on how to do online outreach, i.e. what types of posts to share and which ones to leave by the side. I read this article, but the video appears to be down. Any plans to put it up again in the future?

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