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It’s not just bad behavior – why social media design makes it hard to have constructive disagreements online

Technology can trip people up on the road to finding common ground. Johanna Svennberg/iStock via Getty Images

It’s not just bad behavior – why social media design makes it hard to have constructive disagreements online

Technology can trip people up on the road to finding common ground. Johanna Svennberg/iStock via Getty Images

It’s not just bad behavior – why social media design makes it hard to have constructive disagreements online

Technology can trip people up on the road to finding common ground. Johanna Svennberg/iStock via Getty Images

It’s not just bad behavior – why social media design makes it hard to have constructive disagreements online

Technology can trip people up on the road to finding common ground. Johanna Svennberg/iStock via Getty Images

We found that people often avoid discussing challenging topics online for fear of harming their relationships, and when it comes to disagreements, not all social media are the same.

Technology can trip people up on the road to finding common ground. Johanna Svennberg/iStock via Getty Images

Amanda Baughan, University of Washington

Good-faith disagreements are a normal part of society and building strong relationships. Yet it’s difficult to engage in good-faith disagreements on the internet, and people reach less common ground online compared with face-to-face disagreements.

There’s no shortage of research about the psychology of arguing online, from text versus voice to how anyone can become a troll and advice about how to argue well. But there’s another factor that’s often overlooked: the design of social media itself.

My colleagues and I investigated how the design of social media affects online disagreements and how to design for constructive arguments. We surveyed and interviewed 257 people about their experiences with online arguments and how design could help. We asked which features of 10 different social media platforms made it easy or difficult to engage in online arguments, and why. (Full disclosure: I receive research funding from Facebook.)

We found that people often avoid discussing challenging topics online for fear of harming their relationships, and when it comes to disagreements, not all social media are the same. People can spend a lot of time on a social media site and not engage in arguments (e.g. YouTube) or find it nearly impossible to avoid arguments on certain platforms (e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp).

Here’s what people told us about their experiences with Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, which were the most and least common places for online arguments.

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