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Why social media design makes it hard to have constructive arguments online

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

There is 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 is another factor that is 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 (for example YouTube) or find it nearly impossible to avoid arguments on certain platforms (for example Facebook and WhatsApp).

Here is what people…

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