Bridging Deep Divides in Digital Spaces
April 17, 2020
The airwaves of social media and the depths of the internet are teeming with polarizing viewpoints, so it seems reasonable to articulate best practices for engaging diverse perspectives online. It had long been a goal of mine to articulate such a list, and I set out to use IFYC’s Instagram account as a laboratory of sorts. How could I mimic the richness of conversations at the Interfaith Leadership Institute in digital spaces?
In turn, I made many mistakes—some of them consequential. My goal eventually pivoted from generating a list of best practices for online dialogue to suggesting that any conversation about religion or politics should be had in person.
Who would have thought we’d encounter a time when encouraging in-person human interaction would be a luxury? As we seek conversation, relationship and even understanding in a digital space, here are a few key practices to remember:
- Always know why you’re engaging. If you make the decision to engage conversation around a dicey topic, have a clear reason why. Are you trying to educate? Build understanding? Learn another point of view? Have a good reason to engage someone, and use that to ground yourself.
- Prioritize sharing stories over telling opinions. This is a wildly helpful tip—please integrate it. Stories build understanding, and it’s much harder to argue with a personal story. There’s a reason many sacred texts are compilations of stories more than they are lists of principles—they’re compelling and powerful.
- Assume nothing; always ask clarifying questions. It goes without saying that online communication is finicky since social cues are lost. Tailor your reactions and engagement accordingly, clarifying when there’s uncertainty about intention.
- Direct people to helpful resources. Don’t put the pressure on yourself to be an expert or spokesperson for an issue. Share resources that resonate with you. This also helps create distance if things get too personal for comfort.
- Don’t forget that you can DM. This is the equivalent of pulling someone aside when you don’t need to broadcast a private conversation to a whole group. Send them a direct message instead of engaging in a public forum.
- It’s never too late to graciously disengage. If your purpose is no longer clear (see suggestion #1), there’s no need to spin your wheels and waste precious mental and emotional energy. Kindly state (if you want): “This isn’t feeling like the interaction I intended anymore, so I’d like to move on—thanks for taking the time to chat.”
Hannah Minks was a former program manager at Interfaith America.