Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Internet Argument: Introduction

What is the first rule of arguing on the internet?

Don’t. It's a waste of time.

Just ask anybody.


What is the point of communication? What’s the point of language? Words? Gestures? Dirty pictures? Bad jokes?

The sharing of information. The transfer of ideas, chunks of knowledge, feelings, and experiences.

Communication is a way we can take the experience and knowledge gained from millions of other lives and deposit all of that into somebody else’s head. You can know what happened to a stranger a hundred years ago. You can learn what somebody else just learned. One person’s lesson can become yours. It’s pretty amazing.

Body language. Pictures on walls. Language and gestures. Carvings, heiroglyphs, pictographs, cuneiform. Writing. Mutual understanding of language and symbols, combined with technology, caused the original limitations of distance and presence to start fading. Somebody could have said something forty years ago and you could read it now, without worrying about playing a game of generational telephone or he-said she-said. Somebody could write something down miles away and send it to you via bird, turning distance into a non-issue. Pretty sick.

Printing presses? Movable type? Now you can tell hundreds of people, thousands of people, tens and hundreds of thousands of people, an idea (provided they can read it or somebody nearby can read it for them). You don’t have to write it down a thousand times, you can write it down once and let a machine do the work. You just have to worry about getting the paper and ink.

Telephone. Radio. Now you can literally say something to people who are not even in the room. They can hear the words and tone and cadence.

Photograph and film. You can see what people actually saw, the very light that was transmitted in that very space is now available to you, and you can worry a bit less about the artist’s eyes and hands and interpretations and imperfections.

Internet. Oh man, the internet. Pictures, text, sound. And games! Somebody can create a message that forces you to interact with it to complete it.

We’ve changed a lot since the old days. Printing presses, movable type, photography, film and telephones? Child’s play. We literally turn words and pictures and videos into waves that fly into space and bounce back down. We've been doing it for years. All for the sake of communication.

And now we have an insanely ubiquitous communication network, capable of transferring insane amounts of data and information through the goddamn sky. We can share stories, jokes, ideas, feelings, arguments, concepts, and new developments. We have the opportunity to increase the knowledge base in our heads by insane, unparalleled quantities.

It’s easy to forget if you’ve grown up in the middle of it. But we’re in the future. The world of tomorrow. It’s amazing. We can transmit all different kinds of information. Just about anybody can talk to just about anybody.

Of course, any time you take two human beings and give them the opportunity to talk, they’re going to disagree about things. In theory, a disagreement is an amazing opportunity for at least one of those people; it represents a difference in analysis, in knowledge base, in experience. It represents the chance for one or both of the people involved to increase what they know, expand what they think, and improve their brainspace.

We are free to share and communicate. This means we are free to start expanding the information space in our heads by leaps and bounds. Of course we will disagree! Of course will argue. We don’t work from the same cultural backgrounds, information sets, genetics, or experiences. But arguments and debates are golden opportunities. The time is right to become the smartest we've ever been.

And the general consensus has become “don’t bother.”

What happened?


I have two main points to make, with lots of little sub points.

The first point is that the Internet has a few quirks and characteristics that make it extremely easy for useful discussion to break down. Despite having the power to share so much information, despite being such a potentially valuable tool, it also has the possibility/inevitability to degenerate our communications rather quickly.

This is not to actually be defeatist. It’s easy to forget when you’re reading a website’s comments section, but the Internet has done some amazing things for us. It’s not as though we live in a bleak wasteland of cyber-misery. The ‘net has helped us out a lot. There’s no mistaking it. Yet a few things have gone awry, and peculiarities of the Internet have contributed.

The second point is that these problems that the Internet appears to bring are not really the Internet’s fault. It’s our fault. It’s because of how we tend to think and how we tend to respond to one another. Things that have always existed.

Because unless you forgot about the longstanding prevalence of war, racism, sickness, ignorance, oppression and stupidity, it’s pretty clear that humans have always been human. The Internet is a window, and through it we are peeking into ourselves and our tendencies. When people say that the internet has ruined things, that arguing on the internet is somehow a special phenomenon where it’s impossible to achieve a meaningful progression or resolution…

It’s as false as it is true. Because people use the internet, and they have always been people. That’s the real root problem, and the Internet is not to blame.


Is it time to give up on meaningful conversation and just go back to posting pictures of cats and food? I don’t think so.

I mean, don’t stop posting them if you don’t want to. I don’t mind if your tilapia shows up in my Facebook feed, even if the image is filtered to hell and back. But don’t give up either.

At the very least, don’t give up on yourself and improving your own interactions with the people you bump into online. You only control one person’s responses and that person is you. Make sure you aren’t falling for the very same traps and problems that can make the internet such a nightmarish landscape to have a conversation.

But refusing to participate doesn’t help either. The answer to a communication problem is “communicate better.” It is not “stop communicating.”

And that’s the purpose of writing this. To identify what I see are the primary ways that discussion, debate, argument, and general perception goes awry, particularly online. So hopefully you can see through some of the silliness and do a little better for yourself.


This is the current version of the introduction to this thing I'm writing. It's going to have numerous chapters and probably be the length of a short little book (assuming I actually finish it, which I am going to try my best and do). Please tell me if you find this subject interesting and if you are as excited as I am (very).

Thanks for reading.


  1. I'm interested in seeing how your point develops and what sort of solutions you offer to help people get over themselves when on the internet. Anonymity will always be a problem with how people go about acting on the internet, and I don't foresee a reasonable solution coming any time soon.

  2. If people were taught from a young age to be as respectful online as they are in real life it could help. I personally don't troll around but I did when I was a teen. I think that there are some spaces where you can have meaningful arguments usually heavily moderated forums are best for that. One example is elitistjerks for wow another is smashboards but that's because there is a good chance you will see those people in real life.

    I would like to read more of your thoughts on this although at this point its probably more from a point of curiosity than interest in the subject.

    Thanks for doing this blog by the way I really enjoy reading it. I miss your ICS.


  3. I love this post. I keep saving your stuff. Just doesn't feel right leaving the page without hitting bookmark.