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Twitter’s roiling stew of rage and snark is good for society

Since they’re populated by humans, that Twitter and Facebook are so full of arguments shouldn’t come as a surprise. But what might be new about these services is how likely you are to come across views that aren’t your own. Ideas or issues that simply don’t come up over coffee might spill out in your friends’ Facebook updates.

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Outrage! Acrimony! Anger! If once the worst thing you could say about social media was that people occasionally talked about their lunch, these days many complain about the relentless fighting and indignation that seems to plague online chatter. People argue over everything from politics to brands to sports teams, and when not doing that, they often angrily comment on current events or media.

Things have gotten so bad that The Awl's Choire Sicha caused quite a stir recently when he reminded people that, if you wanted to avoid an online fight, you may want to simply not respond to people. That's not exactly rocket science, and yet, given the way things are going, it seemed totally necessary to say.

In response, many make (rather dubious) arguments about the breakdown of civil society or the corrupting, alienating influence of technology. What would get lost in that, however, is that all this tension on social media may be a sign of something good: that people are being forced to confront vital, often-ignored perspectives they once could easily dismiss.

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Since they're populated by humans, that Twitter and Facebook are so full of arguments shouldn't come as a surprise. But what might be new about these services is how likely you are to come across views that aren't your own. Our online connections tend to be less symmetrical than our physical ones. You might follow someone on Twitter who shares your passion for baking or all things Apple, but with whom you have very different political views. Similarly, ideas or issues that simply don't come up over coffee might spill out in your friends' Facebook updates.

Inevitably, then, all these differing views collide into one another. Think of the recent kerfuffle over David Gilmour's comments on teaching, or the reaction to a science blogger's harassment at the hands of a well known figure. In each instance, social media lights up with arguments between people who choose to follow each other online, but clearly disagree on some pretty fundamental issues.

What's the upshot to all this fighting, then? For one, it seems social media makes it more likely that people who would have never come across novel or better ways of thinking are not only introduced to them online, but forced to confront them, too.

An instructive example is the issue of gender in the world of video games. Even a few years ago, it was quite easy for some gamers to never encounter the questions raised by feminism about that medium. But as social media made the diversity of the community more apparent, it became increasingly hard to ignore the work of writers like Leigh Alexander or female gamers in general who talked about their experiences and ideas on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. Inevitably, angry debate and heated arguments followed, often because people who had no experience with feminist thought were grappling with ideas uncomfortable to them.

The net effect is that if you are into video games, you are now more likely to come across ideas about gender. Thanks to the tireless efforts of feminist gamers, these debates can go public and become mainstream (for example, the Xbox rape joke debate from the last E3). As a result, the tone of game conversations seems to be shifting in response. Follow a few games journalists today, whether male or female, and soon enough, discussions about sexualized characters or sexism in marketing will pop up in your feed. Even a games industry review of recent hit Grand Theft Auto V mentioned the issue of misogyny. It's a heartening thing to see. The very anger and argumentativeness that some use to try and silence people can, as a kind of public show, also work to amplify and spread important ideas.

Obviously, I wouldn't want to get overly idealistic. Though debate is seen as key to democracy, the idea that we get ever closer to the truth through reasoned argumentation is perhaps too idealistic, and ignores how entrenched traditional ideas are, and how incalcitrant most of us are, too. People very rarely "win" online arguments. This is to say nothing of the fact that people working to push marginalized ways of thinking into the mainstream are often subject to a violent reaction of hate and abuse.

At the same time, though the anger and outrage can seem futile and even dangerous, the visibility of all this fighting has its own sort of effect. For all our worries over whether the Internet is a "filter bubble," the arguments that come as a result of the loose, asymmetrical connections of social media can help in introducing ideas to those who might have missed them, or avoided them on purpose. That may make for a tense Twitter or Facebook feed, but given how easy it is to retreat into the cocoon of our own beliefs, it's hard to see it as anything but a step in the right direction.

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Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang

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