This morning I spent 2 hours reading about a semi-scandal on the Net. I am not going to be specific or even link to commentary about the scandal. I don’t want you to be distracted; I actually spent a lot of time reading about it and the back and forth between players. I even wrote a few comments on several blogs and even emailed one of the instigators of the semi-scandal to express my disapproval.
This sort of thing happens every few weeks or so. For a media junky like myself, I can’t help but get sucked into it. Usually I just lurk and follow the unraveling of everything. Sometimes I will add my own two cents. Generally, because I am reasonably well-informed, I can make a rational (i.e., non-crazy) comment, but days or even later, I look back and wonder: Why did I spend so much time reading about THAT? Why did I bother spending so much time coming to the defense of X or going to great lengths to show that Y doesn’t know what he is talking about?
In most of these cases, the people involved genuinely feel the way they did; they are not in fact trolling or trying to bait anybody. But usually by the time you hear about the semi-scandal, most of what needed to be said has already been said; the rest is just piling on. If you think about it, almost any intellectual discussion can be completed with less than 20 statements. But some threads contain dozens or even hundreds of comments and replies. Why do people do it?
Online debates will devolve, even when the stakes are relatively high. With climate change controversies, the climate hawks literally believe that the fate of the planet is at stake and that the denialists are helping that to become a reality; the doubters believe that the climate change people are nothing more than communists dedicated to imposing their world agenda of dominance. Both sides are wrong on this, of course. But at least you can understand the depth of the passion. With the semi-scandal I learned about today, I can safely say that it doesn’t matter very much; in a week or so, it will be completely forgotten about. Some people were duped; some people exaggerated and said things they shouldn’t have, but ultimately it will barely register as a blip in anyone’s long-term memory.
Why do people do it? Why do they succumb to the temptation to mouth off about things when they haven’t heard the full story? Perhaps some people simply get hot-headed (a charge I am occasionally guilty of). But anger can be a fascinating emotion; it entangles a person to the point where it becomes impossible to become untangled. Some get invested in these semi/pseudo scandals because they feel (correctly) that mouthing off about it has no long-term repercussions. I never ceased to be surprised at how rarely the people who mouth off actually pay consequences. Ironically, Facebook is the only place where you actually hear back from your peers that something you said online wasn’t right. My mother (who never — and I mean NEVER — reads my blog – hi, Mom!) occasionally will scold me for things I have said on Facebook. I don’t deny that on Facebook I am often willing to participate in lengthy discussions about hot-button subjects. While I occasionally feel regret about something I wrote (more for how MUCH I have written and not for WHAT I ACTUALLY WROTE), I rarely have considered deleting my comment; I said it, why deny it? Besides, the kinds of people who keep tabs on you (i.e., potential employers or dates) rarely take the time to collect and process everything. The response of today’s youth to the problem of Internet permanence is simply to drown the world with cat photos and funny youtube videos and produce so much material that only the truly obsessed could track it all down. I’m sure I have said rabid things about George W. Bush or other hot-button topics that probably would embarrass me to read now. But why start deleting? Chances are that these ill-considered remarks are destined for the dustbin of obscurity anyway.
On the web there is the tendency to engage in what I call “non-constructive activities.” There’s a great Star Trek episode where the Emergency Medical Technician (a humanoid medical robot) short circuits every time he contemplates a dilemma of medical ethics. His positronic brain literally explodes every time he reexamines the same dilemma (which he can’t help doing because his memory banks are wiped clean before the reinitializing of the brain can begin). Surely psychology has developed behavior modification techniques to help people disengage from nonproductive or self-destructive activities. I am no psychologist, but here are some techniques I have found which helped me to ratchet down my involvement in an online matter.
People who are not writers will suggest not writing the thought down at all unless you want it to appear on the front page of the New York Times. That is an absurdly high criteria, and it ignores the fact that most writers value their own ability to take a stand and use their words to criticize. I believe it is impossible to suppress the desire to write a snappy retort. But you can limit the length of this retort and the frequency of retorts. If you find yourself in the middle of a thread war, you should limit yourself to 2 replies (or maybe 1 per day). Ideally a comment in a heated discussion should be no more than 2 paragraphs – anything longer than that, and you are just ranting. Besides that, the phenomena of trolling should make you aware that sometimes the very act of writing may be a way of conceding defeat. (i.e., if you write another response, “then the terrorists have won.”)
Another thing you can do is to make your tone as lowkey and dispassionate as possible. Often I have used extreme language to criticize something and later realized that my criticism wasn’t entirely valid or that with the passing of time, the matter no longer seemed important enough to feel irate about. I rarely have regretted the substance of my remarks – though I sometimes regret jumping to conclusions so quickly. But I almost always overestimated the psychic value of being right or besting someone in argument. Ultimately, no one cares – although people will always remember how much you blather – without bothering to remember if the points you made were actually right. Politeness is not only a good strategy for keeping things friendly, it’s also a way to insure yourself against the possibility that you may have been seriously wrong. It also reduces the awkwardness if you end up meeting an adversary in meatspace. (Yes, it happens sometimes). More than likely, people won’t remember the insightful remark you made on a blog or forum. Hey, that’s life. But people certainly remember online instances where someone acted like an asshole. Avoiding assholes online is actually an evolutionary stable strategy for humans. It’s probably embedded in your genes somewhere. If humans have a natural tendency to avoid assholes in real life, the logical strategy to adopt from an evolutionary point of view is that one should avoid being perceived as an asshole. A businessman friend who sells a lot on ebay told me that he never gives negative feedback for customers or other sellers even if he felt the other party was unreasonable or dishonest. Why? Doing so creates the risk that the other party would reciprocate with negative feedback, creating a vicious circle. One way to succeed is to stay as objective or dispassionate as possible. Injecting a little bit of passion or emotion into an argument is not necessarily a bad thing. But when dealing with an unhinged person online, strenuous or passionate arguments can only aggravate the situation.
You should be content not to have the last word. For writers and wonks and polemicists, there is a tendency to want to post replies to every point your opponent has made. Your foe responds, and then you must respond to everything in the response (while making additional points). That’s a surefire recipe for an extended argument that will lead to absolutely nowhere and suck oodles of time. At some point, one of the parties has to stop responding. But how stubbornly and tenaciously you stick to the argument has nothing to do with who is more right or logical. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the inability to disengage may indicate an irrational fear of being bested. If two people end up wasting a day or two on a pointless discussion thread, what have they accomplished? What other things could they have spent their time doing? (This sort of thing ended up sucking so much of my time that I decided to start charging money for it). Failing to respond to a troll or even a legitimate arguer can be a courageous and fully logical act. It takes a wise person to recognize when it is better not to add your two cents. (Update: I have a solution to this: “That fish has been fried!”)
Concede ground when you are wrong or unaware of the complexity of an issue. That increases a person’s credibility and earns good karma. Discussions are adversarial. Either Person A is right about something or Person B is right. But if Person A admits that on subpoint 1 he was wrong, it not only advances the discussion, it sets a tone that Person A is flexible and reasonable. It might even inspire reciprocal concessions. Both sides can become less worried about saving face and more dedicated to making the discussion worthwhile for both people.
How do you know when you are wrong? And how do you say it? A blogger can simply provide an update at the end of a blogpost. Blatant apologies often are appropriate and appreciated. If you were wrong, why not admit it upfront? Earlier, I said that people almost always remember online assholes. But they remember public apologies just as much.
When participating in a long thread, it’s important to ask yourself, “Is my contribution actually unique and interesting?” Obviously you are an interesting person, and obviously you think that anything you write has to be interesting. That is self-evident. But on a heated discussion where many people are weighing in, there is a tendency to overestimate the value of one’s own potential contribution. If you didn’t make this comment, would the point still be made? (Or was it already made earlier?) Some threads actually increase in value with more contributions. This usually happens when individuals can provide illustrative anecdotes , recommendations or when individuals can locate citations or further not-so-obvious evidence. Roger Ebert’s blog threads, to pick an obvious example, are replete with worthy comments by people offering alternate interpretations about a movie. On the other hand, policy and technical blogs often don’t need contributions by readers. Many readers are simply not well-versed on the topic or they remain unaware that their arguments or grasp of facts are incomplete or long since disproven.
I find it helpful to apply this criteria to my potential comments or contributions. Would a neutral person regard my comment as a rant? The secret to eloquence is in avoiding the accusation of being a ranter. Let me explain. A rant exhibits certain characteristics: prolixity, rhetorical flourishes (wit, sarcasm, etc) and a tendency to cover EVERYTHING when arguing. Rants can be fun especially when they are a form of self-parody. But what matters the most is context. If I rant on my blog, that’s ok because it’s my blog. I can do and say whatever I want. But if I rant in a comment to someone’s Facebook post or someone else’s blog post, chances are that the other person doesn’t appreciate and may even resent my attempt to steer the discussion. Sure, some bloggers or forums don’t care as long as your comment contains interesting information and doesn’t go on too long. Others are less forgiving. You need to factor in that your estimation of other people’s tolerance level for your rhetoric will probably be higher than it actually is. No matter how brilliant or informed you or others think that you are.
You should ask, is this a good use of my time? By definition almost all Internet activity is a waste of time. But when you engage intellectually and emotionally in a certain hot topic or thread, you risk throwing away time which you may never get back. This morning, instead of working on ebook production, I spent 2 hours reading/feeling irate and drafting pointed comments towards strangers I will never meet about a semi-scandal that ultimately does not matter. Looking back at it, I just wish I had worked on ebook production tasks and not bothered. (*See Note) I rarely think back about online battles I have waged and feel satisfaction about my words or actions. More often, I just wish I had that time back. Years later, I never revisit those same threads and think, “What an eloquent bastard I was!” An intellect has many useful functions, but rescuing people from ignorance on forum threads just doesn’t rank that high in importance.
Finally, a confession. After reading this essay, you might assume that I never make rants and never waste afternoons writing pointless comments on threads. Far from it. I write with insight about this subject precisely because I fall into these rhetorical traps so often. I will probably continue to commit the same errors out of stubbornness, boredom and pride. Over the years, I have made these kinds of mistakes less often – thank goodness! but I’m sure I will succumb again. But at least I will recognize the malady when it hits. Mea culpa, mea culpa. Eloquence isn’t always great or beautiful; sometimes it can be downright annoying – but at least you can choose the best way to make use of it.
* Actually one good thing came from all that reading and feeling irate: writing this essay!
2022 Postscript: With the recent prevalence of chatbots and trollers, it’s fair to ask oneself whether your opponent is actually a living and breathing human. Perhaps this person is simply a bot designed to suck up your time. When I read the comment section of the New York Times, I am keenly aware that a fair number of them may be trollers from Russia or China — and not really deserving of my time.
Cartoon Credit: XKCD