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How Social Media Design Fuels Online Fights

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Thursday, October 21, 2021   

SEATTLE - Constructive conversations online can seem few and far between. Research from the University of Washington explores how the design of social media sites affects disagreements.

Amanda Baughan, PhD Student in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, helped lead that research. The research showed that spending more time on a site did not correlate to more arguments.

But Baughan said arguments are common on sites like Facebook, where the goal can be to 'win' for whatever audience is reading the posts.

"There's not really a way to scale back what is happening between two people or a group of people in the comment section," said Baughan. "It can get very heated, very quickly."

Baughan analyzed what percentage of users of certain social media sites said they had arguments.

Seventy-percent of Facebook users said they had argued on the platform. Sites like Twitter and YouTube were considerably lower, with 30% and 6% of users, respectively, saying they'd argued on those platforms.

Baughan said the venue in which these disagreements took place also is important. More than three-quarters of people who used WhatsApp, a private messenger, said they got into arguments on the platform, but were less frustrated with their experiences.

Baughan said people reacted positively to the idea of bringing their arguments on sites like Facebook to a private space, where it can be easier to be vulnerable.

"I think that replicates a lot of how we have difficult conversations in real life as well," said Baughan. "Generally, I don't think we would choose to have it in a crowded room full of people. We would choose to find a time where it's just you and the person that you disagree with, to kind of hash things out."

Baughan said social media sites would need to present such an option sensitively - perhaps not introducing it for the first time while people are in the middle of a heated argument.

"That could seem very creepy because it's like, 'Oh, the social media company is monitoring what I say,'" said Baughan. "So, I think that how the option is presented is really important - probably having it be introduced when there's not an argument."

And Baughan said she would like to see social media companies think beyond individual users' experiences when designing their platforms.

"Especially in the past year with the pandemic, so many of our relationships were carried out online," said Baughan. "And making a bit of shift towards emphasizing the relationship, in addition to the user, could be really beneficial."




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