Chris Brogan raises some interesting thoughts and questions in his post “Are We Addicted to Giving Our Own Opinions

The tools we use for social media have empowered us to be steady-flow commentators. Watch Twitter or Facebook during any event, and you’ll see our added commentary rolling along in time with the experience…. In blog comments, on Twitter, all over Facebook, Yelp, YouTube, and several other sites, we’ve been groomed to give our opinion. We spit it out everywhere. We share, rate, criticize, deride, praise, and everything in between.

I’m not sure what to call it.  In some contexts it does appear to be an addiction and in others, a sense of entitlement.  The sense that, “You’ve said something in public and as a result, I’m entitled to give my opinion and you have an obligation to receive it.” I’m not against the idea of free speech, but I am uncomfortable with the notion that I have an obligation to receive everyone’s opinions.

Several months ago I disabled comments for a post on my blog.  I was tired of long email threads on the Fedora mailing lists where the experience was more a battle of who could have the last word and why the previous person’s opinion was wrong versus thoughtful dialog.  The “discussion” was less about thoughtfully considering unique points of view and more about “being right.”  My post was about a topic that had already been discussed on the Fedora lists.  I wasn’t looking for more ideas and feedback.

A few people were annoyed because they couldn’t leave their opinions at my blog.  To my knowledge I had not asked for their opinion. I simply wanted to share something from my own site without five people immediately telling me I was wrong. They were free to do that from their own blog using trackbacks, but some thought that was too inconvenient.  In some ways I can see that it was if they were approaching my blog with the expectation that it was a place for their opinions too.

I still haven’t made my mind for good on this.  Mostly I see my blog as my own little house on the internet where sometimes I invite visitors in and sometimes you get to read what’s posted on the front door. For now I’ve taken a more nuanced approach where I turn on comments for posts where I am looking for feedback and opinions.  When I just want to think out loud and give my point of view without having every bit of it critiqued I turn them off. Maybe this is the wrong approach.  Maybe there is a better middle ground I haven’t thought of yet.

Brogan concludes by asking,

So the question becomes: if we’ve built all these tools, these comment buttons, these like buttons, these “share and add notes” buttons, how is this impacting our interactions and our communication? Now that we’ve gone from not having a voice to having tools to give our opinion about everything, how does this change us? How does it impact how we interact with people? What does it mean to the larger ecosystem?

My first reaction is that none of this is helping us to be more thoughtful listeners–we aren’t doing ourselves a favor by re-enforcing a behavior that seeks first to talk and then to listen.  Perhaps you’ve seen this in a conversation.  One person shares something and without missing a beat another person jumps in with their own experience or story without explicitly acknowledging what the other person said. I’m not saying it always has to be that way.  Sometimes sharing your own experience is an implicit way of acknowledging and valuing what another person said–and sometimes it is more about taking the mic back for yourself.

I fully realize that the other side of this is that we can learn a lot from each other.  I’ve learned a lot from other people’s opinions and way of seeing the world.  And a lot of that has happened through comments and long discussion threads. What is most often missing for me is the sense of constructive discussion–where an idea becomes more robust, knowledge increases, and the conversation goes deeper.

Chris Grams wrote an insightful article about the phenomenon of “memo-list” at Red Hat.  Memo-list is capable of providing the same level of experience (the highs and the lows) of the Fedora mailing lists.  I think his conclusions are a good response to how to use our communication and commenting tools better.

The most important principle is that there are no stupid ideas– all ideas are good (in his post, Gary Hamel says “All ideas compete on equal footing”). If your goal is to use an open forum to get the best ideas, you must generate a lot of ideas. And if you want to get a lot of ideas, people must feel safe to contribute without fear of harsh criticism. If people begin to fear criticism, they will self-edit. No more openness. And a lot less ideas.

The second principle is that when you feel the urge to criticize an idea (hey, we all do…), resist, and instead come up with a better idea and rally people around it. Keep the conversation positive, constructive, and stay focused on creating rather than judging.

Maybe mailing lists are not “social media” in Brogan’s context, but they are definitely places where people give their opinions.  The reminder I took from Grams’ post was the importance of being clear about your goal.  I suppose social media can have a variety of purposes and some people will use the same medium for different goals.

In the spirit of getting everyone’s opinion I’m asking for yours.  Comments are open.  Tell me what I’m missing or should thoughtfully consider.