I think the internet is actually an ideal training ground for developing your ability to talk about important issues. Having good conversations does not come naturally. We all need practice. The internet offers several unique opportunities for practicing good habits.* Here are my top 5.
1. You can screen your own thoughts. Lesson: You learn to be intentional.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to post everything that you type. Unlike face-to-face conversations, you can get your thoughts out, read over them, make edits, and then decide whether or not to post your comment. Also contrary to what you may think, it is absolutely not a waste of time to type out your thoughts and then simply elect not to post them. I do this A LOT. Sometimes you realize that you do not have anything indispensable to contribute to the conversation. Sometimes it just is not worth it. Even so, working out your thoughts will help to prepare you for future conversations. What is more, learning to screen your thoughts is vitally important for face-to-face interaction.
2. You can do your research. Lesson: You learn to be informed.
The person that you are talking to on the internet might be really smart. OR, he might just be sitting in an office surrounded by books on the topic. That is one great benefit of digital communication. If you don't know what to say, you can stop, do some research and then come back. That is a luxury that you would not be afforded in a heated face-to-face discussion. Is it "cheating" to do research in between comments? Only if the point of the point of the discussion is to determine who knows more off the top of their head. I have never been part of such a conversation. And who would enforce that rule anyway? On the other hand, if the point is to have an intelligent discussion and work toward finding the truth (as it should be), then you are really doing a disservice to everyone by staying in the dark. What is more, getting in the habit of being informed will improve your face-to-face conversations as well.
3. You can choose public or private. Lesson: You learn to be tactful and sensitive.
Suppose that your friend posts something controversial on Facebook. You notice it in your news feed. If you sense that you have something to contribute, but you do not want to jump into the fray; you can offer to take the conversation to email or private message. Maybe you just want to talk to your friend. Maybe there is an outspoken person hijacking the conversation. You can politely ask to speak to either of them privately. I almost always prefer this approach over having a knock down, drag out, public debate that will attract trolls and bandwagon jumpers alike. It is not always possible to "go private" with a face-to-face conversation, but it is always necessary to exercise tact and stay sensitive to the particular situation.
4. No one can see your face. Lesson: You learn to be calm.
Are you frustrated because some bonehead refuses to engage your arguments, and instead just keeps attacking your character? Of course you are. The good news is that no one can see the constipated look on your face. Don't blow it with a hasty response. Step back, take a deep breath, scream into a pillow, count to ten, say a prayer. Then, come back with a calm and collected response (if one is even warranted). People who are watching the conversation will be amazed at how well you handled yourself. They don't ever need to know that you punched yet another hole in the wall. As it applies to face-to-face conversations; this is a case of "fake it 'til you make it." Practice staying cool until it becomes natural. As a general rule, the man who loses his cool also loses the debate.
5. Many opportunities to practice humility. Lesson: You learn to be humble.
I once heard a pastor say that it is dangerous to pray for patience. Within a few days of making this request to God, you will almost certainly find yourself in a situation that dramatically tries your patience. The same is true of internet conversations. Do you need to work on exercising humility? We all do. Well, just jump on social media and you will almost certainly find yourself in a situation that demands tremendous humility. I am not suggesting that you should deliberately put yourself into situations that you know you can't handle. However, if you intentionally enter into discussions with the intention of showing humility, you will develop a great habit for face-to-face conversations in the future.
*I am not suggesting that internet conversations are a substitute for face-to-face interaction. They are not.