Four years ago, Scottish teenager Kal Turnbull was wondering if it was possible for people with opposing viewpoints to have a civil discussion. So, he created a space to do just that on the social media site Reddit. Today, the Change My View sub-Reddit has over 300,000 members and, most surprising, a civil discussion built upon rational, well-thought out, smart arguments. The goal is to get people to change their minds, and much of the time it works. Topics range from gentrification, capital punishment, and pirating intellectual property to the etiquette of sending thank you notes, and whether or not museum art is stupid.
In another corner of cyberspace, something else noteworthy was happening.
Megan Phelps-Roper, who was raised from a young age on Westboro Baptist Church’s controversial protest lines, found forgiveness and care from strangers on Twitter. This kindness prompted her to question her beliefs, expand her understanding, and ultimately leave the hate group. Now, she is a social media activist, lobbying to overcome divisions and hatred between religious and political divides.
If these stories sound surprising, it might be because this is not the social media narrative we are usually given. Instead, we are told that social media has a negative effect on society: It results in a lack of attention span, a decline in intellectual abilities, creates stress and fatigue, and causes us to suppress our emotions. Not to mention the trolls. Social media is infamous for people exhibiting extraordinarily bad behavior.
While the internet does bring out the worst in some, and a case can be made for each of these claims, there is also a delightful obverse to the social media coin.