One business service I provide is to help people talk through tough issues. Back in 2009, I created a Facebook page to discuss politics in my town, Edina. I named it Politics in Edina, but everyone referred to it as PIE. Eighteen months ago, I wrote a story about PIE.
For me the site was an experiment. There weren’t many places where people talked politics and were still half-way decent to each other. I wondered if it could be done.
I was feeling reasonably optimistic when I wrote that first piece. Shortly thereafter PIE struggled through a brutal election season. A local senate race set a new state record for spending. Anyone paying attention would say the independent expenditures got out of hand. That stirred things up on PIE, and the site took a turn for the worse.
The acrimony associated with partisan campaigns wasn’t surprising. What I didn’t see coming was the amount of hostility over city issues. If I wanted to create some action, all I had to do was post something about residential redevelopment (a.k.a. “teardowns”), bike lanes, or recreational fires.
This past spring my co-moderator’s career took him to another state, so he stepped down. Shortly after, the site’s “likers” dropped noticeably over the course of a week. Someone had coordinated an effort to get the site’s conservative regulars to leave en masse.
With it being an off-year for elections and summer just ahead, I decided to give the site a rest. I took it down for the summer and used the break to assess the site’s impact.
Summer is over and a nine-person school board election is upon us. It’s a good time to restart. The problem is that I don’t want to. So instead, I’m tossing in some moth balls and leaving it in storage for now.
During the past year, I changed my mind about whether the site was working. I wanted a place to talk about tough stuff, but in a friendly way that felt safe. The site became less and less friendly. I could feel my own animosity growing, noticed it in the comments on the site, and got an earful from people who said many PIE comments were just too nasty.
While I hoped the site would help people learn and understand; far too many comments seemed meant to debate, convince, attack, insult, or smear. And even if on their face a neutral reader wouldn’t see them that way, the partisans usually reacted to what they believed was the intent, rather than the words on the screen. Regardless of what I posted, they were often treated as a partisan agenda. Few if any on the site were able to assume positive intentions from people who didn’t share their political views.
In the end, I’d say the site didn’t achieve its goals. It also may have done more harm than good. Here’s what I believe were some of the underlying problems.
Too many partisans
The partisans all think they are right and the other side is wrong. Plus, they can’t help doing what they think necessary for their teams to win. Me and my co-moderator were partisans. Most of the regular commenters were as well. Even if they were trying to be open-minded, nobody believed it.
Not enough people without rock-solid positions
The kinds of discussions I hoped to read required people who wanted to explore, consider, and learn. If those folks were on the site, they weren’t adding content. Their silence meant they weren’t able to influence. The site needed more comments from people who hadn’t made up their minds. We needed people who weren’t wedded to one of the parties or a particular ideology.
Too lenient when people behaved badly
There were people who contributed to far too many fights. Others were full of righteous indignation as they fought back against what they thought was an attack. There were even threats of legal action over what people wrote about others on the site. At times people who were normally on pretty good behavior would have a moment that created problems. I found it particularly difficult to deal with people I considered friends. When I asked them to change their behavior, I’d often run into serious blow-back.
Facebook isn’t a good platform
I knew Facebook would help with the visibility, and it did. But it also created problems. First I couldn’t control the format because I didn’t own the platform. Second, Facebook stopped pushing all posts to all likers. Facebook didn’t have much to do with the site’s atmosphere, but it did lead to technical challenges.
I still like the idea of a community-based forum where people deal with tough problems in a safe and friendly manner. In Edina, the City has tried to host something. A bit of discussion goes on at Edina Patch as well, although both sites struggle to get people to act with kindness and respect.
The idealist in me thinks it could still happen. The idea just needs more work. Perhaps someone else will find the energy and the right format here in Edina. Maybe you will attempt it in your community. We need to be able to work through our differences. It won’t happen without some new approaches and a whole lot of effort.
If you have suggestions about what could make political discourse more productive and less combative, add them to the comments. I’m interested in your ideas.
Image credit: NatalieMaynor