I was upset when I saw the news that none of the officers responsible for the killing of Breonna Taylor would face any charges. I said as much on my Instagram account when I posted a story saying that the ruling prioritized property over human life. The post was meant to draw fellow users’ attention to yet another example of the systemic racism that continues to oppress Black citizens in America.

Well, that’s what I’d like you to think at least.

The truth is that I held my breath for the next 23 hours and 59 seconds, stressfully counting down the seconds until Instagram submerged my story into the virtual abyss. I breathed a sigh of relief the next day when I took stock of the nice collection of red, double-underlined “100”s and hand-clap reactions I had amassed.

My sister hadn’t been so lucky. She texted me the night of the verdict:

I just posted some stuff about breonna taylor
so many weird right wingers sending me report screenshots
about how can i defend this and that
in our world

As we exchanged messages, she told me about one user in particular, a friend that she had decided not to engage with on the matter.

I took the high road and just said i love you and respect you, but im not getting into stuff like this with you
if we want to continue to be friends, do not respond to my posts and try to have a heated discussion with me because i wont engage

I was confused. I texted back:“what was the point of posting about Breonna Taylor if you won’t engage with those who disagree?

I thought back to some of the more nerve-racking social media showdowns I had been involved in over the years. One with a former classmate I had enjoyed a perfectly-shallow, jovial relationship with about the 2017 Muslim ban’s impact on my loved ones. Another with an old friend I hadn’t seen in person in at least five years, where we battled over his harsh accusations that I was playing up my personal experience with racism as a form of “virtue signaling.” They are two among many discussions that absolutely drained me, made it harder for me to sleep, and stayed with me for weeks. I remember catching myself huffing and puffing with anxiety and anger as my trembling fingers hovered over my phone’s keyboard. The stress associated with these difficult conversations, and others like them, is the reason I hold my breath after posts like the one about Breonna Taylor.

My sister texted back a few minutes later
I’m not gonna spend my day DMing back and forth about Breonna Taylor with someone who felt like her dying was okay.

Maybe she had a point. If I were to retrofit that approach to my own experiences, I would have avoided a lot of stress by ending those conversations before the huffing and puffing started. But isn’t that a form of surrender? Why post if I’m not up to the engagement that follows?

I was stuck on the same question. Ironically, I looked to Twitter for a way out.

I received a wide range of responses both privately and publicly. One common thread was a near-universal recognition of the futility of engagement due to skepticism of the ability to influence others, the rarity of “good faith” discussions, or how useless it is to engage if you have less than a 50 percent overlap in your views. Another thread was more of a diagnosis: that many of our posts are constructed for the purpose of venting our feelings on these matters, and that doing so doesn’t require us to engage on them because social media isn’t the most ideal space for such engagement. This thread underpins the popularity of Twitter’s new feature; you don't have to request that users “Don’t @ you” anymore. Instead, you can bar certain users from responding to your posts. Nice right? I’m still not so sure.

Social media is absolutely a flawed channel for substantive debate and discussion. Twitter and Instagram are the easiest platforms within which to share and advocate positions on social and political issues and yet among the most difficult to actually learn about or substantively discuss them. Your characters are limited, you don’t always have time to read the whole article/report/testimony, and, save a great deal of your own efforts, the algorithms have you steeped into a world of your own making that is only occasionally rocked by someone like that friend my sister encountered. Most importantly, limiting such weighty discussions to capped-characters eliminates non-verbal communication, which can create an empathy deficit , providing an ideal breeding ground for the aforementioned personal nature of exchanges.

We’ve heard all these arguments before, that we virtually inhabit echo chambers, that you’ll never change someone’s opinion with a post/tweet, that social media has inflicted damage upon society’s capability for civil debate. That we never have real conversations anymore and should pick up the phone or reserve such engagement for face-to-face interactions.

But it feels reductionist to accept these points and draw upon them to use social media primarily as a place to vent/feel supported, and to, with the help of the “Don’t @ me” feature, reserve disagreements for those I have at least 50 percent in common with or in-person interaction. Something about that approach makes posting/tweeting feel disingenuous.

The truth is that social media is impossible to apply one consistent policy towards because it serves myriad aims even with respect to complex social and political causes. It’s the tool that young citizens across the Middle East and North Africa used to overthrow oppressive governments and its also the tool those same governments use today to monitor their citizens’ activity and push their propaganda. It’s the perfect place for that offbeat, hilarious nonsequitur that just popped into your head and the most ideal medium for a policy expert’s thread on the feasibility of a single-payer health care system in the United States.

The only consistent, across-the-board functionality of social media in all these examples, is the ability to reach people en masse, in the same instant.

I prefer talking on the phone and meeting in person for discussions on social and political issues I am passionate about, especially if we fundamentally disagree. But in 2020, it’s unlikely that I’m going to ask that guy from my financial analysis class in 2009 for his number so we can switch our Muslim Ban discussion to the phone when a spoken word hasn't passed between us in ten plus years. That’s kind of the whole point right? I wish I could switch our conversation to the phone, but social media allows me to send my thoughts to him, and that classmate I lifeguarded with the summer after my junior year of high school, and my roommate's cousin who stayed with us six years ago in one post. You reach a larger number of people — that you may not have engaged with anyway — more quickly on the surface rather than a much smaller number more slowly and at a potentially deeper level.

This whole piece may have been an exercise in futility. I still don’t really know why I post or when to disengage from a conversation. But I have rediscovered two truths about social media that will guide me as I continue to use it for social/political messaging.

  1. Social media serves a wide range of purposes
    so it’s completely acceptable to post about a complex social/political issue for the sole purpose of resonation among like-minded users or substantive engagement with those who fundamentally disagree
  2. More complex social/political issues are harder to have real conversations about on the surface; especially when you fundamentally disagree
    and the surface is where social media exists; so keep that in mind when you're in such a discussion

So the next time I’m frantically counting down another 23 hours and 59 seconds and that combative message pops up, I may still choose to engage. But I will do so with the centering wisdom that such a complex matter can only merit but so much depth, dynamism, and sometimes even civility if we are in such fundamental disagreement.

But of course, maybe I just wanted to get a quick message out there for the purpose of venting, and in that case then yeah — don’t @ me.

Reflections on government, culture, politics, and society.