One Thing Guaranteed To Increase Engagement -- But You May Not Want To Do It

My News Feed this week is drowning in posts about Israel and Palestine. Most of them tend to be in support of the latter, thanks to a largely liberal friend network and Eli Pariser’s filter bubbles. The commentary wasn’t exclusively pro-Palestinian, however; there were a few posts of Bloomberg landing at Ben-Gurion, and a clip of Bill Maher saying that Israel uses rockets to defend civilians and Hamas uses civilians to defend rockets.

What there wasn’t a whole lot of was moderation. Every post I saw labeled one side or the other “right,” and laid the behavior-change burden of responsibility squarely at the feet of the other.

This bold claiming -- almost a land grab -- of the moral high ground is certainly not isolated to the Levant, either. It happens in the U.S., in Europe and Australia, in the halls of power and around the kitchen tables of the most ordinary families. It happens for a few reasons: We firmly believe in the correctness of our position, we want to agree with our friends, we don’t want to agree with our enemies. Rare is the politician who will concede that her opponent makes a good point. But it also happens because it works.



In any form of media, whether it’s social or news, digital or analog, it is more powerful to be polarizing than to be nuanced. We are like rats pressing a lever: Make a bold statement, and, in return, get comments, likes, discussion, drama.

It is more gratifying to say politicians are assholes than to say that even the ones you disagree with have put their hands up for a job that involves public ridicule, constant argument, and continual frustration, and that perhaps they need compassion and an approach to change that doesn’t exclusively involve making people wrong.

“You’ll be shocked!” “You’ll never believe!” “My jaw was on the floor!” “I was stunned!” Hyperbole drives our lizard brains into action; we have evolved to survive by generating urgent, automatic responses to dramatic stimuli. You never know when that Upworthy clip might be a lion, coming to get you.

Considered discussion, by contrast, lives almost entirely in the frontal cortex -- and we all know which one wins in the battle between our civilized selves and our animal instincts. Considered discussion often requires people to admit that they don’t know the answer, that in fact there may not be an answer, that the world is full of grays and we, with our eternally imperfect knowledge, are usually simply casting about looking for the least bad option.

This is not to say there is no instance in which an unqualified stance is appropriate. But even the most hideous of crimes -- pedophilia, for example -- can have facets to it that should make us stop, and pause, and consider our own absolutist views, as Ira Glass explored in this episode of ”This American Life."

Online, we tend to be looking to get people’s attention, to drive them to action, whether we’re marketing our products or our selfies. The more dramatic we are, the deeper our line in the sand, the bolder our statements and the more unequivocal our positions, the more likely we are to get people’s attention. They may agree wholeheartedly or disagree vehemently, but they will do so loudly, and with their own degree of certainty, and so the cycle continues.

I posit to you that this is not a cycle that benefits our society. It is not a form of communication that serves to uplift humanity. It is a way of engaging that panders to our lowest selves, that drives us towards simplicity and away from deeper understanding.

So, yes, you may get more engagement if your posts are more extreme. But depending on what kind of world you want to live in, you may not want to take the extremist stance.

I welcome your comments.

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