I believe arguments are generally a good thing, but Twitter is the worst possible place for them.

The Internet is full of negativity. It’s unforgiving, unforgetting, and loves drama. It seems every week or so find myself or someone else saying, “Oh, man. Did you see the dust-up last night on Twitter between @someone and @someoneelse?”

The other night, a friend and I got into a random argument on Twitter. The thread was probably 15 tweets long. 20 minutes later, we had a DM conversation and we decided to mutually delete our tweets.

From my perspective, I was just in a stressed mood and made a snarky comment that half an hour later I regretted, but in short time it had become a full-fledged and passionate debate.

Debates have their own gravity. They pull us in just as much as they pull in others. Sucked into one, I can find myself arguing with intensity and length about something I’m only casually interested in. On Twitter, arguments get personal fast—responses aren’t even to you, they’re AT you!—and the instant gratification of a solid, clever retort is high. But the consequences just aren’t worth it.

Arguments on Twitter have a depressing rhythm to them. Point! Counterpoint! Insult! Retort! Like two bucks smashing antlers in a clearing, both sides are aware they have an audience. Very little substance can actually be communicated in 140 characters, so in order to make as loud of a noise as possible, Bambi gots ta bring a gun to a horn fight.

In any argument, people tend to say things they don’t mean—or at least much stronger than they mean. At the end of a lively in-person disagreement between two people who respect each other, it’s pretty common for both sides to apologize for their intensity and perhaps throwing a bit of spittle and the occasional ad hominem. “No hard feelings,” we say.

Not so on Twitter. Even if the two original parties who raised the discussion have settled it and moved on, permalinks and screenshots just cement and extend those feelings, with onlookers mounting them like a trophy rack over their blog’s fireplace.

By the way, this is what political debates look like: pullquotes and pundits. Find the sauciest lines, stir them with our own personal bile, and dinner is served! Disqus and Google Analytics will be eating for a week!

In a public forum with easily discovered threaded history, supporters and opponents pile on, cheer on, and jeer on. It’s now an opportunity for people to choose sides, pledge allegiance, and demonstrate where their loyalties really lie. And then the controversy becomes an opportunity for conjecture. What was a rift between two people—perhaps even just a temporary and situational one—becomes a solid netsplit with begrudged nodes circling the blog post wagons around their respective positions. Now, it’s a war.

So what’s the answer?

  1. Resist the temptation to join an argument on Twitter. Nobody’s immune: we all know better, we’re all tempted, and we all fail. If you do get into it, end it and withdraw as quickly as you can. Then shut the damn thing off and go do something else.
  2. Don’t pile on, pull apart. Friends don’t let friends tweet drunk with rage. If your buddy was about to get into a fight, you’d grab him and hold him back—even if he was getting baited into it by a personal attack. Why can’t we do the same on the Internet?
  3. Remember nobody wins arguments on Twitter. In real life, you are far less likely to convince someone to agree with you and more prone to cement them in their position. This is even more so the case on Twitter.
  4. Picture the post. If all else fails to hold you back, picture the blog post with a screenshot of that tweet at the top of someone’s blog, well after you’ve personally moved on from the argument. Even if it’s clever in context, do you want that line immortalized?

Undoubtedly, some will disagree with this and they’ll have some solid reasons for doing so: disagreements of opinion are one of the most compelling and educational things that happen on Twitter and these discussions do a great deal of good in bringing up issues and perspectives worth unpacking.

But if it starts to raise your blood pressure or heart rate, it’s probably worth setting aside or finding a way to move it a different medium.

At least that’s the advice I’m going to give myself here. :)