In recent months, we’ve seen the rise of “the Twitter Battles” around hot-button issues like Hobby Lobby, gay marriage, religious freedom, evangelical orthodoxy, etc. They tend to develop this way:

  • A well-known person with a large following from a particular tribe says something shocking or inflammatory, intended to provoke a response from his or her ideological opponents.
  • Or the battle begins when one well-known person engages another well-known person on a hot-button issue where emotions run high.
  • The two ideological opponents banter back and forth a few times, reducing the complexity of their views into 140-character soundbites.
  • The followers from both tribes act like fans in the stands, cheering on their hero either by praising them or by bashing their opponents.
  • Everyone gets properly outraged and the conversation ends wearily.

I know what a Twitter battle is because I’ve engaged in them a time or two. After the last one, I came to the realization that these online interactions are virtually useless in creating and sustaining real and meaningful conversations about highly-charged issues.

Twitter is a place for conversation, but once we go into battle mode, I think the legitimate conversation is already over. Twitter battles are like putting on a spectacle for the perverse pleasure (or dismay) of the Twitter audience. Has anyone watching one of these debacles ever said, “You know what? You convinced me! I’m wrong and you’re right.” No one. Ever.

I’ve declined to engage in most Twitter debates, but after jumping into the ring a time or two, I’ve decided not to do so anymore. I love conversing on Twitter, but once I see the conversation devolving into the battle, from this point on, I’m going to step out. Here’s why:

1. Twitter Battles are Dehumanizing.

This is the big one for me. People tend to read their own emotions into a Twitter battle, which is why the rhetoric gets quickly ratcheted up and everyone comes across as angry and mean. At least, that’s what it seems like to me.

This is one place where social media and technology let us down (or where we simply aren’t up to the task). We don’t really know the people we are bantering with. It is all too easy to place people in camps, read into their every tweet the worst assumptions, and then create an ideologue of our own imagination rather than a real person.

I am not my avatar. Neither is my opponent.

I don’t want to assume the worst of people I debate, and Twitter makes that hard for me. Why? That leads to point #2.

2. Twitter isn’t the best place for thoughtful dialogue and debate.

Most of our deeply-held and sincere beliefs simply aren’t reducible to 140-character soundbites. I worry that in reducing everything to the world of Twitter, we’re not doing justice to the complexity of our positions or the people who agree or disagree with us.

It’s not a problem with the technology. Twitter is what it is. But maybe Twitter isn’t the best place for the biggest debates.

I have seen some good interaction on Twitter. If you are engaging with a good-faith critic who is gently probing wrong assumptions or a problem with a point you’ve made, then Twitter can become a place where you are sharpened. It can at least get you thinking.

But while Twitter may be a helpful tool in starting some good conversation, it probably shouldn’t be the place where such conversation ends. I’m not against criticism or critical interaction, but I don’t want anything to do with the flesh-pleasing spectacles that characterize many of the battles I’ve seen online.

Blogs have limitations too, but at least there is room for some thoughtful analysis and solid argumentation. If a good question comes up on Twitter, I’d rather give it some thought and devote a blog post to it, not try to answer from within the limitations of the Twitter format.

3. Twitter battles are a waste of time.

Chat and instant messaging can be an efficient form of communication within an organization, but Twitter is like a public chat with cheerleaders on both sides expanding the conversation until the balloon becomes full of hot air. The continually buzzing phone is a magnet that draws us into a vortex of increasingly hostile rhetoric until the true lines of division are hidden behind masks of outrage.

Twitter is a platform I enjoy and benefit from. But Twitter battles are another thing altogether. They simply serve to reinforce the worst stereotypes about us and our ideological opponents. That’s why we should yearn for thoughtful interaction with each other’s points of view, not immediate and incendiary reactions (and all sides of a debate can be guilty of this!).

Twitter may be the place where good interaction begins, but our time would be better served if we continued important conversations elsewhere.