Monday, February 25, 2013

Arguing on the Internet

Where's there's people, there's arguments.

An artist's interpretation of YouTube comments.

The subject of arguing on the internet is a joke among those who spend their time online. It is generally accepted as a futile practice: if it's already difficult to convince people of anything in traditional arguments, then you probably aren't going to convince anyone of anything online. Yet, despite this, there's still a high level of zeal behind the opinions of any fool who's found themselves thinking, "Yes, I disagree, and I have to say something."

Like all things, there's a little more to it than that. It's hard to use the criteria of effectiveness on an online argument, because what is 'effective' online is very different from what is 'effective' in real life. The rules of engagement are very different.

What, then, is the anatomy and worth of an online spar? And does it have any higher implications about the way we communicate?

Let's outline the difference in media. Let's assume that two individuals begin to debate an issue within an internet forum.  How does the online setting affect the argument?

To analyze this, we must first settle on what comprises an argument. Aristotle's appeals describe the elements of good argument: logos - the appeal to logic, pathos - the appeal to emotion, and ethos - the appeal to credibility or authority. Traditionally, a good oral argument - either speech-to-audience or face-to-face - effectively uses all of these elements.

It must also be considered that body language and tonality have an important role in clarifying murkily-worded communications, and likely have a role in persuasive capacity (though, the 7% rule on verbal communication is in fact a misinterpretation of the original study). People will cite instances like the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate as proof of the power of presentation. Although the role of presentation may be exaggerated in those instances, it certainly does not hurt to effectively use one's own presence during a debate.

Arguing online is an exercise in writing. This immediately eliminates tonality and body language from the discussion, and puts a focus on your words. In this situation, the conclusion of your debate can only be determined by the statements that you put forward. Nobody can hope to beat their chest online and expect to have any persuasive weight.

A how-to on yelling online. Or, a how-to on getting everything you say ignored.

Since your personal presence is lost online, the appeal to emotion becomes far more difficult to achieve in the argument. On the other hand, the appeal to logic becomes very straight-forward. You'll be able to carefully and methodically guide the reader through a chain of reasoning, thus simplifying communication and streamlining the journey to a conclusion. You will also have plenty of time available to choose your words and edit your argument prior to making it public. This gives you an opportunity to make your reasoning especially water-tight.

Ethos, however, gets an especially important role in online argument. There's usually very little reason to  believe the stories or experiences of an individual stranger, and it's already in poor taste to rely on anecdotal evidence.  With the internet, it can be hard to tell what kind of person you're really communicating with. There will always be mutual doubt on the identity of the other debater, so talking about personal experiences online will be met with even more skepticism than usual.

Therefore, any appeal to authority must be done through the use of third-party sources. This will entail  researching (and providing links to) relevant online websites. Since news articles, scholarly works, lectures, books, and other legitimate publications are only a Google search away, any savvy arguer should be able to back up their own claims and fact-check their opponents' claims.

The ability to substantiate your claims with evidence is a luxury that isn't afforded by in-person discussion. Generally, people won't be carrying around all of their argument's source material wherever they go. Any given individual can be extremely biased, and can fall victim to any number of logical fallacies. If the other person is unable to quickly pull up evidence as a counter, then those biases and fallacies are often left unchecked. Imagine an in-person debate that happens at the spur of the moment, where arguers are put on the spot to make claims without having any source material on hand. In situations where fact-checking and appeals to authority are impossible, the argument cannot possibly arrive at a truth.

To make a good online argument, your writings must be driven by verifiable facts and logic. The facts speak for themselves, and the logic can be assessed and scrutinized by all readers. What's more, every word that you type throughout the argument is preserved, which means that you'd better choose your words carefully, lest you contradict yourself later. The online written medium encourages methodical and critical thinking over off-the-cuff outbursts and generalizations, and any argument in the latter category can justifiably be dismissed as white noise. We can conveniently ignore or call out those who attempt to prove a point through intimidation, ambiguity, or false information.

Overall, that sounds like a superior arrangement to a face-to-face argument. It empowers the soft-spoken, and it favors the knowledgeable over the charismatic. So why is arguing on the internet such a laughable practice?

Because if you're wrong, then you can just wordlessly disappear. Or just pretend you were kidding all along. Or just make passive-aggressive ad hominems.

Or maybe less passive, more aggressive. And throw in some bigotry, too.

The major problem with the online medium is that there's next to nothing holding you accountable for responding appropriately to debate. You can be horribly, desperately wrong, but if you don't like the evidence that is working against you, then you can close your browser and poof! The evidence is gone!

In real life, this kind of behavior discredits you among your peers. You can't cover your ears and pretend that you're not hearing the other person. You can't simply turn around and walk away mid-conversation. Doing such things would have social consequences for you. However, if you're in a relatively unregulated and detached corner of the internet, then there is ultimately no consequence for what you say or do.

Ever notice how absolutely stupid YouTube comments are? Individual ignorance is less inhibited by the fact that they are posting anonymously, and by how their comment will be among a sea of other anonymous comments. Worse still, if you decide to respond to a stupid post, your argument can very well be ignored by the original poster AND drowned out by the oncoming addition of new, equally vapid comments. Just as you try to clean up the stain of shit that someone else left, you remember that you're in the middle of an ocean of piss.

But, maybe it isn't just anonymity. Facebook has had its share of shameless ignorant posts on it, and the posters' names are there for the world to see. Maybe it's just the invulnerability of being online, or the inherent detachment of online activity from everyday activity. Maybe, as we touched on in the online dating blog post, the online sphere can sometimes be seen less as a communication tool and more a tool of self-expression in the presence of others. This would frame these ignorant comments as an ignorant person simply thinking out loud, and could perhaps account for the vitriol often seen in online argumentation (since, after all, you'd be attacking what was supposed to be their personal thoughts).

We must also mention the concept of trolling, where one presents a disingenuous message with the primary intent of provoking its readers. But, that's its own can of worms, and we'll save it for another day.

Perhaps the underlying reasons are multi-faceted, but the consequence is clear: although our arguments have the capacity to be smarter, stronger, clearer, and more correct, the effort is often seen as a waste, because the other side can swiftly ignore your argument. And yes, this is commonly viewed to be so frustrating that the best solution is widely believed to simply not argue at all.

And, honestly, it's a solution that sounds good some of the time.

So, does this destroy the value of arguing online? No, not quite. Although online arguments are not effective in accomplishing the traditional goal of an argument (i.e. to convince the other person), it can still be a net positive to have the debate.

Firstly, online arguments often have an audience. Even if your target decides to ignore your points, your argument can still sway and educate other people. You never know who will come across your argument in the future. Perhaps, five years from now, an impartial third party runs into your post and learns something from it.

An example of this can be found with how young earth creationism (YEC) has been addressed in online circles. People who subscribe to YEC will often try very hard to argue that the theory of evolution is incorrect. Many arguments have since been formed to counter their varied - but universally irrational - claims. These arguments are well-formed, citing credible sources and relying on a step-by-step logical process to disprove the claims of creationists. Eventually, these arguments were compiled into an Index to Creationist claims for anyone to access. It is a powerful resource for someone looking to read on the creationism-evolution debate, and why - at this point - it shouldn't be a debate at all.

Secondly, the stupidity in online expression can be effectively curtailed through regulation. Moderators in online communities can define the bare minimum criteria for posts, and can levy punishments to those who don't meet the criteria. Although it's not as effective as the social punishments for poor conduct in a real-life debate, it still offers more accountability than an unregulated forum setting.

A great example of this can be found with the SomethingAwful forums, where there are several measures for quality control in place. First, you must pay $10 if you want an account on the forum, effectively keeping out anyone with a casual intent to cause trouble. Once you're actually a part of the forums, you are subject to the rules of the forum, which are quite strict about post quality. If you violate these rules, the moderators will probate and ban you, and if you're banned, you will have to pay ten more dollars to reclaim your account. These measures have resulted in an online community primarily filled with high quality posts, leaving most other popular forums looking shameful in comparison.

Finally, even if nothing comes of your online argument, then at least you can say that you got something out of writing your thoughts. To write a good argument, you had to commit to a mental exercise. You had to consider the facts and sources in front of you in order to form a reasonable conclusion. You've gotten a little more informed for it, and there's definitely value in that.

Internet arguments are looked down upon for their general futility in actuating immediate change. But our compulsions to get into online arguments and win can often end up working towards our benefit. It forces us to pursue - and confront - the truth. Even if someone runs away from the conclusion, you can bet that they won't get far. If the conclusion is sound, then chances are they'll run into the same conclusion again someday. Maybe it'll eventually wear them down to the point that they change their opinion.

Or, maybe they'll find an echo chamber and be done with the whole thinking thing.

I found people who agree with me? I never have to listen to anyone else ever again!

Speaking of echo chambers...what happens when someone who frequently goes online, starts trying to discuss something with someone who almost never goes online?

What happens when someone wired to something as comprehensive as the internet suddenly has to confront someone who's completely oblivious to the internet? Chances are, the online arguer won't be able to articulate a good argument in person, and the traditional arguer won't be able to articulate a good argument online. Different persuasive techniques gain priority depending on the setting, and at least one party will be left unable to express themselves properly.

Does this rift in communication have any higher consequences?

We'll explore that one next week.

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