As in regular life, you are under no obligation to interact with someone on the internet. This is especially true if someone is abusive or unkind or rude.
If someone (uninvited) walked up to you in a parking lot to yell or berate you, then you might walk away fast out of caution for safety’s sake. You can do the same online.
Some might object to this by saying that social media is a public platform. Yet social media platforms allow for a full range of privacy settings so that posts can be private, only for family, friends, etc.
Facebook for example allows you only to befriend whom you want to befriend. It is not as public as Twitter might be. This is true because you don’t have to publish your posts publicly but only to friends or subgroups or whatnot.
The same is actually true, partly, on Twitter. You can limit who can comment on your posts. You can mute and block people. Yes, Twitter is by definition more of a public platform than Facebook and Instagram—both of which allow you to have a small private network.
So the technology itself allows for limited contact with people.
But also at a practical level there is no reason why the public nature of discourse requires you to engage with everyone. If I am in a parking lot or a park, then I may be speaking to a group of people. Anyone can overhear. They may be from my neighbourhood, and so part of my social network.
And if they talk to me, I can either include them in the conversation or choose not to. I would include them if they want to engage with me and my friends. But if they simply want to disagree, yell, or berate me, then I probably would not.
Depending on the situation, I might ask this person to meet one-on-one for coffee to work out our differences. But I doubt I would want them to ruin my afternoon and time with friends. Obviously, it would depend on the situation.
But let’s say this person sat down at the table my friends and I are at. Then they took over the conversation and started randomly trolling all of us. We’d likely ask that person to leave since they were unkind. That seems entirely reasonable.
I am not sure social media has to be any different. If you use social media to share ideas with friends and colleagues, then why would you feel obligated to let someone antagonize you or your group of friends?
Someone might say: what if the person has a valid complaint! Why don’t you answer them? That could be. But then that assumes that I and others use social media as a public forum for conversation and argument.
I use social media to share ideas and to learn of new books and so on. I interact with some friends online. But I don’t have the time to interact online. A comment might take 5 minutes to write, if it’s a thoughtful one. Sharing an article online takes 10 seconds. Two comments can take 10 minutes. Who has time for that?
I can post ten times on social media in a day for 100 seconds of total time. I can give two brief comments to friends in 4 minutes. But it can take me 20 minutes to respond four times to thoughtful or hostile questions. So I may take the time to respond to a friend online in a thoughtful way; or I may not do so. It really depends on the day.
If someone responds hostilely or even challengingly, I may simply not have the time or bandwidth to engage with multiple 5 minute responses—which could be longer if you count the time it can take to think between comments.
At the most practical level, we have jobs and duties. So commenting online, for the most part, may put us at odds with our real life responsibilities. Everyone knows how a comment thread online can take up your mental space.
My recommendation: do not spend a lot of time commenting online. A better option, in my view, is to hear a challenge. Wait a while to consider what is said. And eventually write an online article (if you are a writer) to articulate your thoughts after reflection. It betters discourse and protects you from the time-sink of online commenting.
In the end, you are under no obligation to interact with someone on the internet. If that person happens to be your mother, maybe you are! Ha, but you see my general point, I hope.
We should do our best “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men” (Titus 3:2). Sometimes that might mean we choose to respond to a hostile or less than kind comment. That is okay. I suppose the point is we can choose to comment and spend our time online interacting with people, or we may choose not to do so.
We can unfriend or block or whatever we choose. We have no obligation to follow the pattern of much social media usage, which is to invite everyone to your public profile. Make it private. Specialize in sharing about good books. Or whatever you enjoy. Talk to those whom you want as you might in a park. Don’t feel like you need to pick up a megaphone and talk to the 400 people there. Just talk to 5.
Enjoy the internet and don’t let it dominate you. It’s a tool, not a replacement for all of life. It’s standards don’t have to be yours. Protect your time and your mind. Be as open as you want or as closed as you want.
Don’t be gaslit into thinking you have to interact with more people on the internet than you have the capacity for. That’s what anxiety seems to be in part: worrying about what you cannot handle. So why invite more people than you can handle into your timeline? Prune and control it so that it benefits you or your friend group or your family or whatnot.