War of Every Man Against Every Man
August 31, 2010 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Alan Jacobs laments the Hobbesian reality that is modern Internet discourse in his article "The Online State of Nature" at Big Questions Online.
A now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.
posted by ob1quixote (84 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not sure how to comment on this...
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 12:18 PM on August 31, 2010


With humility and charity, you jackass.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:20 PM on August 31, 2010 [133 favorites]


WRONG
posted by dersins at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've often jokingly said that the internet exists as a medium for smart ass comments and clever quips. It's not entirely a joke. I certainly haven't found that it's very conducive to real dialogue. But that's anecdotal, and I'm sure someone will have found otherwise.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


"We have temporarily disabled BQO's comment feature while we refine our policies moving forward. We thank you in advance for your patience."

They mean it!
posted by Beardman at 12:23 PM on August 31, 2010


I'm just going to come out and argue. I think the Internet is Hobbesian in the same way that, according to Marx, the German philosophers of the mid nineteenth century were "revolutionary":

"As we hear from German ideologists, Germany has in the last few years gone through an unparalleled revolution. The decomposition of the Hegelian philosophy, which began with Strauss, has developed into a universal ferment into which all the “powers of the past” are swept. In the general chaos mighty empires have arisen only to meet with immediate doom, heroes have emerged momentarily only to be hurled back into obscurity by bolder and stronger rivals. It was a revolution beside which the French Revolution was child’s play, a world struggle beside which the struggles of the Diadochi [successors of Alexander the Great] appear insignificant. Principles ousted one another, heroes of the mind overthrew each other with unheard-of rapidity, and in the three years 1842-45 more of the past was swept away in Germany than at other times in three centuries.

All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought."
posted by outlandishmarxist at 12:24 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's not entirely a joke. I certainly haven't found that it's very conducive to real dialogue.

I think that, like any medium, it's what you, the user, brings to the table. You manky clod.

Now, I am off to RTFA.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:25 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm sure that socially our obsession with justice causes us enormous problems. We have an extremely hard time acknowledging that sometimes justice doesn't protect anyone in the future, and doesn't do anything to alleviate past suffering.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:26 PM on August 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity

Either that or people are just dicks.
posted by bondcliff at 12:26 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think that, like any medium, it's what you, the user, brings to the table. You manky clod.

Why you... @*#$*()@!!!
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:28 PM on August 31, 2010


a robot made out of meat: With humility and charity, you jackass.

You know who else had an atrophied sense of humility and charity?

I know, I'm ashamed of myself for merely adding to the smart-ass quip-ery here, and I really am interested in this conversation...but I couldn't resist anyway.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:30 PM on August 31, 2010


Someone is wrong on the Internet.

wrong, you could do wrong or wrong but just "wrong" is wrong.
posted by stbalbach at 12:32 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Raise your hand if there are a bunch of really neat, helpful things you've learned that you would never share on the Internet because you would get drawn into a dead-end debate with a bunch of random people intent upon demonstrating a few edge cases under which your helpful things turn into weapons of mass destruction.

Now keep your hand raised if this ever happened to you on Metafilter
posted by circular at 12:35 PM on August 31, 2010 [41 favorites]


I think part of what he's seeing is just the ability to bring into contact the extremes of a debate, within and between. There's an echo chamber of like minds which gets more extreme, and strangers can wander into it and be startlingly out of place. People were jerks before, just in private. There's an unfortunate tendency, which happens frequently here, for the worst representatives of an idea to get appointed by the other side as its defenders since they're easy to argue with (but impossible to converse with).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:36 PM on August 31, 2010 [7 favorites]


What does this have to do with a stuffed tiger? I didn't read the article but arguing on the internet is obviously more Calvinist, these Jacobian ideas are WRONG!
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


People were jerks before, just in private.

Yeah, this.
posted by muddgirl at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2010 [7 favorites]


I've always been baffled by any article that proceeds from the assumption that "Communication over the internet is [shallow/rude/impossible/etc]." In my experience the content and attitude of online discourse diverges wildly based on setting, number of participants, privacy, anonymity, whether posts are 'rated,' and so on. I certainly don't post the same way here as I do on Facebook, or a private forum, or on Twitter, or in the comments section of a newspaper article. I've never been able to identify anything characteristic of online speech in comparison to the variety of ways people talk to each other anywhere else.
posted by theodolite at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm really sympathetic to discussions — or even, yes, lamentations — about the state of online discourse, but this isn't really that so much as it's a healthy self-diagnosis followed by a world-historical load of crap. The most moving part of this reflection, and the part that rings truest, is the shaking hands: the symptom that tells him that what was supposed to be just words on a screen has become (his own) real-world anger. But however common an experience this is, it's no ground at all for the claims, or should I say hand-waving nonsense, that make up the latter half of the article. Getting into a fight on the Internet does not bolster a case that "our private, familial, and communal lives" now revolve around ideals of justice rather than love, unless you're already convinced that that (a) means something and (b) is true.
posted by RogerB at 12:39 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Someone is wrong on the Internet

No, they just hate Apple.
posted by mattdidthat at 12:40 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like the vitriolic poo-fests because sometimes there's a flameout. I like to gawk. It's because I'm a bad person.

Though, I gotta say, there are fewer flameouts than there used to be. Ou sont les DNABs d'antan, is what I want to know.
posted by everichon at 12:42 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm with muddgirl andbondcliff on this.

It's silly to think that people are different now because of a keyboard. Im sure people got all up in arms when books started being published.

It's not that people have changed, or are different...it's just that those who live in their own secluded world finally find out that there are different people out there.

But just like pop psychologists and biologists on CNN...proposing shit theories is a good way to get your name out.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:42 PM on August 31, 2010


Wow, someone really *is* wrong on the internet.

(theodolite just beat me to what I was about to say. I wonder if there's a name for that trick, where you put out a huge philosophical screed explaining *why* something is "true," hoping no one notices you provided absolutely no evidence the thing you stated as fact in the very first sentence is actually true.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:43 PM on August 31, 2010


People treat each other like garbage in public, to each other's faces, every day. I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the internet; all it takes a little difference in group identity and it's license be unbelievably hostile, rude, condescending, screamy, depending on circumstances (see any gender or race related thread on metafilter talking about real life experiences, the Starbucks plain bagel lady, etc.).
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:44 PM on August 31, 2010


With humility and charity, you jackass.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:20 PM on August 31


this made me laugh out loud.

i wonder if people process anger differently when they're able to vent behind the screens. although i'm not sure if there's something to lament about (the how of) people emoting and venting through words and internet sites, i do wonder if people "try out" different ways of expressing through text. for example, if i write long-hand, i notice that a feeling i may be writing about comes through in a much different way than were i to type my thoughts out.

talking out loud, spontaneously, in front of the other person(s), warrants and calls for a different way of interacting and may possibly render the person less overtly angry. (do people even want to play nice anymore? arguably, certain people living in the Victorian era played nicely, but what shrill mockeries of sincerity came of that!)*

then again, there are some forums where the "talking back" or "speaking to" can only happen in a distant forum. like that film where the man seeks audience with the U.S. president, for example. sometimes, communication can only be had in the distant, textual, sometimes metanarrative sense. even if angry.

*i don't know how to make this into teeny tiny font, hence the parentheses.
posted by simulacra at 12:49 PM on August 31, 2010


My very first communication with a stranger on the Internet was with some white supremacist shmuck in an AOL chat room.

I was confrontational. Because he couldn't punch me in the nose.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:51 PM on August 31, 2010


It's just a bit of fun. People take internet interactions far too seriously. Which is kinda the point of the cartoon. People who don't know each other say mad shit to each other. To burn off frustration and the working day, to have a laugh, to show off, to whine, to bitch, to have fun. For the lulz. No biggie.

Or at least, it isn't unless you choose to make it so.
posted by Decani at 12:52 PM on August 31, 2010


You manky clod.

Yay! New curse words.

Now, are there mankers as well as wankers? If so, I just may call one of you a manky manker in the near future. If not, manky wanker will have to do.
posted by angrycat at 12:53 PM on August 31, 2010


Before the internet, it was unlikely that two people of different backgrounds and opinions would have any ability to debate beyond shouting at each other on the sidewalk. Now, debate is easily found and largely risk-free, so that there are bound to be more episodes of friction.

I am confident that people today are smarter, more knowledgable and decent than ever before. It's simply that those poisonous opinions which were once kept between a few likeminded neighbours are now broadcast by the megaphone of mass media.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:53 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


To many, admitting that one is wrong is seen as a sign of weakness, a crack in the armour.
Compromise is also a sign of weakness - one gets accused of being like Chamberlain and not like Churchill.

Even on this site, there are so many fights that could be averted, if people would just say "Sorry". Instead they dig in, get defensive, and try to prove their point. And then the sharks smell blood and all hell breaks loose. Say something the wrong way, and all of a sudden you are a bigot, a homophobe, a sexist pig, an arsewhole.

Debate, as civilized as it might be, is all about finding holes in your opponent's strategy. There is no room for "Sorry", or "Let's try this again", or "Let's see where we can find common ground".

And those people that are more pragmatic, more willing to see both sides to the story - their voices are drowned out by the snarky one-liner, the knockout punch.

We all criticized George Bush's "Either you're with us, or you're with the terrorists". But we repeat a version of that line every time we refuse to acknowledge that everyone's experiences are different, everyone's views are diverse, and accordingly, everyone's opinions are valid.

The Internet is no different than society at large. The Internet is a microcosm of society. The Internet is society. And we're just fooling ourselves if we think we are any different.

Think of all the fights that you have witnessed. I guarantee that most of them are due to alternate experiences, misunderstandings and lack of communication, rather than a right vs. wrong, or good vs. evil type of thing.
posted by bitteroldman at 12:55 PM on August 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


Yeah, "manky" is going into the bin marked "keep".
posted by everichon at 12:55 PM on August 31, 2010


Good grief, this isn't new or due to the internet. Discourse, about topics like religion, politics, and lifestyle, has often been incredibly emotional and rude. Especially when it is anonymous. For example, check out the American press, from the colonial period forward.

We are an argumentative species and it is incredible how far people will go in pursuit of their positions. They will commit murder. They will go to war. Etc.

I actually think for all our well known flaws, Metafilter is pretty good at civilized and rational discourse. I've certainly learned a lot here.
posted by bearwife at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obligatory: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/3/19/ (NSFW)
I think the problem is that written words need far more effort to communicate effectively. When the people you communicate with are numerous and anonymous, it doesn't take much to cause confusion and so frustration and so anger in a simple feedback effect.
posted by YAMWAK at 1:02 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Raise your hand if there are a bunch of really neat, helpful things you've learned that you would never share on the Internet because you would get drawn into a dead-end debate with a bunch of random people intent upon demonstrating a few edge cases under which your helpful things turn into weapons of mass destruction.

This is why I have a blog with comments turned off. I share, people who want to read, read, people who don't, don't.

People who want to argue for the sake of arguing, sell me penis enlargement pills, or evangelize the power and love of Timecube have nothing to do there, so I assume they must either leave or stare at the screen angrily.

Either way, I'm happy and so are my readers.
posted by yeloson at 1:03 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


People treat each other like garbage in public, to each other's faces, every day.

For me it's not so much that there are assholes IRL, but rather that most of us would never be suckered into wasting time on them. Yet somehow here, it's easy to blow an hour arguing with what is the equivalent of the obnoxious boor at the party -- the loudest person in the room. At the party, I wouldn't be caught dead doing this, but for some reason here it's GAME ON. Well it's taken awhile to learn, but forget it. Better things to do, and more reasonable people to converse, and debate, with.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:04 PM on August 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


Say something the wrong way, and all of a sudden you are a bigot, a homophobe, a sexist pig, an arsewhole.

I dunno - I'm prone to internet debates, AND to saying stuff the wrong way, AND I hang out at places much more sensitive that MetaFilter, and I'm never been called a bigot, a homophobe, or a sexist pig (although I have been called an asshole a time or two).

In my experience, what happens is that someone calls out my use of language, and the first instinct is to take it as a personal attack, rather than to say, "Apologies, I meant to say this." But that would be part of the whole "admitting I violated a community norm" thing, which lots of people find difficult in any situation, online or off.

I think that sometimes, we remember the particularly nasty stuff and forget the nice stuff, while in real life the exact opposite occurs.
posted by muddgirl at 1:07 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


more people, not enough pie.
posted by Shit Parade at 1:07 PM on August 31, 2010



I think the problem is that written words need far more effort to communicate effectively. When the people you communicate with are numerous and anonymous, it doesn't take much to cause confusion and so frustration and so anger in a simple feedback effect.


I could not agree with this more.
Suddenly everyone is a writer, and nobody knows how to write. Even experienced writers can have a difficult time conveying tone and emotion in text. (Not to mention occasional difficulties in conveying meaning.)

If we learn to take every comment with grace and humility, we're doing something that we don't have to do in day to day life. In person, we have an easier time guessing at the intent of the speaker.

I consider it more of a technical problem than a lack of empathy. (Though as previous posters have mentioned, we haven't 100% determined that there is in fact a problem. For my purposes, I'm talking about places on the net where there IS one. And those places do exist.)
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:08 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, Alan Jacobs! Alan Jacobs taught at my college. I never had any of his classes but I talked to him at a wedding for a bit. Of course, I tarred him with every brush at hand.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:09 PM on August 31, 2010


It's an interesting article. Although I just finished reading Dava Sobel's Longitude which reveals that the technological debates of the 18th and early 19th centuries--carried out through letters and self-published pamphlets--were notoriously vindictive in tone. I'm fond of pointing at Hogarth's lampoon of Methodists as an example of why the idea of a common ecumenical Christian nation is an anachronism for an age when the different branches of Christianity didn't like each other that much. Someone wryly posted that everyone remembers that MLK had a dream, and not that the same speech leveled pointed and harsh criticism at American society and King would later would call for reparations. The Tesla/Edison feud involved the invention of the electric chair, which was never meant to be actually used except for rhetorical bombast, and the Hearst/Pulizer battles were the original Yellow Journalism.

Political discourse on the internet is polarized, compared to journalism that attempted to maintain a pretense of bland neutrality. I'm not convinced it's much more polarized than what we've seen in over three centuries of mass media though.

On preview:

YAMWAK: Yeah, well, Tycho and Gabe are not even wrong there. People using their work email and identity engaged in epic flamewars on usenet and professional mailing lists in the 1970s. Anonymity came later.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like the internet because I can pick my nose while I'm calling YOU a disgusting slob.
posted by Mister_A at 1:11 PM on August 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


I was thinking about this the other day, as I left a party, my head swimming with possible bantering retorts to witty and wounding things I overheard, that simply had not occurred to me in time.

On the internet, there's no such thing as l'esprit de l'esalier, which you erudite folks know means, thinking of a clever comeback when it's too late. Everybody is armed to the teeth with enough time, desire, and a venue to strike back, to push a joke beyond its breaking point or put that bully in his place once and for all.

Anyway, I made that up about the party.
posted by bovious at 1:15 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now keep your hand raised if this ever happened to you on Metafilter

Now raise your other hand if you are currently typing with one hand.

ah ha gotcha
posted by FatherDagon at 1:16 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am confident that people today are smarter, more knowledgable and decent than ever before. It's simply that those poisonous opinions which were once kept between a few likeminded neighbours are now broadcast by the megaphone of mass media.

There's that, and there's the Internet Fuckwad Theory as mentioned by YAMWAK, which is more than anonymity leading to people saying really offensive things, it's also people saying things they wouldn't say to strangers (or their friends) in person.

If I'm debating something in person that is fairly tame, there is body language and inflection to shape the conversation, and the simple fact that the person you are talking to is right there. If they wanted to, they could punch you. But on the internet, you can say simple things that are taken in ridiculous ways, then the response magnifies the misunderstanding.

On the internet, there is no instant clarification, there is no possibility of immediate physical reaction. These interactions are not completely "human," so the discourse can become less humane.

posted by filthy light thief at 1:19 PM on August 31, 2010



With humility and charity, you jackass.

To clarify my earlier comment, which I will agree could be misinterpreted as snark, I think this is a situation where the message is being confused for the medium. For example, look at all of the graffiti you’ve ever seen. In regards to the actual messages conveyed, rather than the rhetoric/aesthetic, is there much of a difference? Perhaps the bathroom graffiti is slightly less reserved and a touch more brash, due to the private nature of the locale as well as the proximity to certain bodily function, but ultimately it is the same: assertive, succinct, and intentionally provocative.

What percentage of graffit, bathroom or otherwise, is a passioned rebuttal to Kant’s Categorical Imperative? Feasiblity being considered, how many are an insightful maxim encouraging cooperative values? As such, internet discourse, by it’s pacing and seemingly anonymous design, encourages the same messages as found in graffiti, but with a keyboard present it also allows further elaboration. Plus, due to the sheer volume of text on the internet, a simple “I agree with what your saying and would also like to compliment you on your rational analysis” will only draw the attention of the person you are referring to, while a “LIBTARDS ARE COMMIE ISLAMICS WHO HATE THE CONSTATUTION!” will draw attention, regardless of anyone’s initial inclination to respond.

It's not so much a reflection of society, as it is a conduit for peculiar qualities of a society normally far less salient.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 1:19 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


His complaint that the internet fails as a means of communication because people are not fair in their written disagreement with the Archbishop of Canterbury pales in comparison to the riots in Scotland over the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that contributed to the English Civil War, much less the pissing match over who is the true defender of the faith in Palestine that contributed to the Crimean war. Even with the flamewars, religious discourse is arguably more civil than it's ever been in history.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:24 PM on August 31, 2010


If I were as big an asshole in real life as I am on the interne..... Oh wait.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:25 PM on August 31, 2010


I wonder if there's a name for that trick, where you put out a huge philosophical screed explaining *why* something is "true," hoping no one notices you provided absolutely no evidence the thing you stated as fact in the very first sentence is actually true.

Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!
posted by longtime_lurker at 1:26 PM on August 31, 2010


Durn,

I believe this is about the difference in relationship we have with words and print than we have with conversation.

When something is said aloud, the audience is minimal, and the chances that it will be remembered and spread around are minimal. Also, the moment when you find yourself wanting to say something fades because there is more going on around you, or simply because the conversation has moved on, so it's easier to shrug your shoulders and return to whatever you were doing before.

When we see something in print, there's no way for that moment of disagreement to disappear. The words are still there. You can reread them in disbelief, and feel your ire rise each time. Chances are there is some other similarly misinformed person who chimes in agreement, with some offhand remark about another political party or philosophy, which only makes it worse for your brain's ability to just let it go.

For me, it's the fear that the words will be there for eternity, saying something that I feel is either not factual or needlessly hateful or plain evil and perpetuating that idea to someone else. Or even to imagine some future person looking back with pity on our discourse. Thankfully, I have started to get over it, and I now realize the the comments section on the Huffington Post will be studied with no more seriousness than Pompeian graffiti.

I try step away from The Box, pick up my book or my pen, and get back to creation instead of destruction. In the time it takes me to fruitlessly argue with some person I don't know, and who probably doesn't really believe what they just said, I could write a letter to my Grandma.

Speaking of...
posted by notion at 1:30 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


The ability to be invisible would turn many of us into thieves or Peeping Toms or worse. Internet anonymity gets people half the way there: we can step into a virtual crowd, say what we like without being seen, and step back out without anyone ever knowing who we were or where we came from. Some of us can't handle these semi-super powers.
posted by pracowity at 1:32 PM on August 31, 2010


One political news site that I love has a comments section that used to be a warm fuzzy utopia of like-minded people exchanging bons mots and agreeably mild quips about various happenings. Recently it has been hijacked by a few self-righteous frothing experts at anger-mongering who have effectively made commenting worthless by transforming the previously mild-mannered denizens of the site into replicas of the hijackers.

This in a microcosm is the internet minus metafilter. Occasionally I wonder about the minus.
posted by blucevalo at 1:34 PM on August 31, 2010


Whenever I hear grar-y noises from the other side of the room, and look up to see mr. epersonae behind his computer screen, I almost always ask: "oh dear, is someone wrong on the internet?" I can tell if he's doing ok if he's able to laugh. Knowing when to step back is hard but important.
posted by epersonae at 1:39 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am confident that people today are smarter, more knowledgable and decent than ever before. It's simply that those poisonous opinions which were once kept between a few likeminded neighbours are now broadcast by the megaphone of mass media.

Agreed. It's basic sociology: people tend to associate with likeminded others and build solidarity by dumping on an outgroup (AKA an Other). That process is very good for forming a cohesive group, but not good for expanding one's understandings. There's great value in becoming more knowledgeable about what other people believe, though it can be uncomfortable, and the internet lets us encounter more chatty others than ever before. Thus I salute the internet for enlightening me, whether I'm being challenged to expand my intellectual horizons by a sophisticated argument, or having my eyes opened to the extraordinary level of duh that some people see as true (like the comment I recently read asserting that "breast implants can cure lesbianism").

I'm with theodolite that different internet settings have very different communication norms--some very civil and supportive, and some wild and cantankerous--just as in flesh-and-blood settings. Problems tend to arise when the norms are violated, and there's a flame war on your support group bulletin board. In those situations, calls for civility and cooling off are warrented. But to see all internet communication as pro-justice-but-anti-love, or as having any other unified character, just seems silly to me.
posted by DrMew at 1:43 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I llove the internet and bought one. You can make snippy comments and not worry because though someone may know your hame or handle, they do not have your address so they can't beat you up for saying shit to them. You can be mean, dumb, racist, viscious and anything at all and you do not have an editor like at a paper that will toss your letter away because it is crude and stupid. Now that is democracy and that is what America is all about, or am I wrong in that?

Of course I don't know what takes place where you live but in my town the internet is so popular that our library got one for people to see. The good thing is that it is free but the bad thing is that they do not want you looking at girls all tied up and getting whipped and being naked. That is why some of us got our very own internet because that is what America is all about.
Thank you for reading this and I hope you too will buy an internet.
posted by Postroad at 1:46 PM on August 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


It has occurred to me many times that Metafilter is a relatively sane place for discourse. The conscious absurdity of our condition seems to reign supreme. I get the feeling that "here" people can be passionate about something, new knowledge and truth are paramount, but if someone is being obtuse, they generally get ignored. Of course, maybe there's some invisible hand of matthowie justice that is vetting the jerks and flames. So be it.

All I know is that compared to Slashdot, Youtube, even the CNN news forums, things are pretty civil here. It may be the opposite of /b/ (and it's possibly hypertrophied sense of justice?).

With all the humility and charity I can muster, it makes me happy to have found a good site to waste my life feel proud of.
posted by hanoixan at 1:46 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


That process is very good for forming a cohesive group, but not good for expanding one's understandings.

This is something I think we do both really well and really poorly here. When we find someone with a significantly different point of view from the norm, we tend to keep probing it like a sore tooth, often with GRAR flavored results, but every once in a while we are able to learn something interesting that changes our minds, and on a couple of rare occasions, change theirs.
posted by quin at 2:39 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


From Galactipedia (2207 edition)
John Silveira: First man ever to invent a workable time machine and first (and last) time traveler to kill Hitler after placing a personals ad in Backwoods Home Magazine (Oct 1997 issue).

Killing Hitler resulted in the death of his father in Dachau II in 1958 which resulted in his never being born which resulted in his time machine never being created which was the very first proof of Grundun's Hypothesis (i.e. The successful creation of a working time machines always destroy the timeline in which it was created.). The current timeline, curiously enough, contains a remarkably similar ad placed by John Silveira as a sort of joke.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:46 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Uh oh.

I think someone is wrong on the internet.
posted by delmoi at 2:56 PM on August 31, 2010


drjimmy11: I wonder if there's a name for that trick, where you put out a huge philosophical screed explaining *why* something is "true," hoping no one notices you provided absolutely no evidence the thing you stated as fact in the very first sentence is actually true.

It's just a long form of begging the question.
posted by Cogito at 3:35 PM on August 31, 2010


I think Charles Stross came at it from a different angle, and said it possibly better and clearer than this gentleman did: what America suffers from is an empathy deficit. We have become savage, fearful, and cruel.

That's as far as he went with it, but I'd further observe that this appears due to believing in Life As Seen On Television. Media sells eyeballs, and nothing gets eyeballs like fear and spectacle. They exaggerate threats to get attention, bringing remote and entirely improbable events up close and personal. Instead of a particular horrific incident being tagged in our heads as remote and unimportant, it feels like it happened to the next-door neighbor. We replace actual life experience with television experience.

As a result, mainstream America has turned into a quivering mass of cowardice. The list of things and people to be afraid of gets longer, and our systemic reactions become harsher, with each passing year. No matter what we do, no matter how awful we become, the threats appear to multiply and multiply, because that's how media companies survive.

Someone posted a great link here on MeFi, about a year or so ago, in which a social scientist of some kind observed, "Never in human history has any society been so safe, and yet feared so much."

It is very difficult to be empathic when you are afraid, and that lack of empathy is strangling us.
posted by Malor at 3:35 PM on August 31, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think Charles Stross came at it from a different angle, and said it possibly better and clearer than this gentleman did: what America suffers from is an empathy deficit. We have become savage, fearful, and cruel.

Is it really just America? I think studies have shown that the 'farther away' from someone, in terms of salience, the less empathy or concern you have for them. Not just physical location but I guess you might say psychological distance. So a voice over a phone gets less empathy then someone you can see. Or Someone in the room. That kind of thing.
posted by delmoi at 3:59 PM on August 31, 2010


Internet arguments aren't Hobbesian at all. The life of an internet flame war is nasty, brutish and long.
posted by TwelveTwo at 4:24 PM on August 31, 2010


Yeah, why can't we all just get along?

Wait, I've got it. Speaking of a hypertrophied sense of justice and atrophied sense of humility and charity, it is worth pointing out that the subject of the dispute is the ordination of women and gay bishops, as if they were somehow the theological equals of straight men.

The author with the rage-shaken hands, of course, identifies as a theological conservative in the Anglican split on these matters. Not for nothing does his thesis turn on a lamentation that the demands of justice are applied to (what he takes to be) the private realm of marriage.

Having made cause with the bigoted side of the argument, he is shocked, shocked that they're a bunch of assholes rather than sensitive, fair-minded folks like himself who can politely disagree that queer folks and women are just as good theologically as straight men without being nasty about it.

And so, to prove his point, he disengages and writes a passive-aggressive article on a separate blog about how right, nice, and just he is (except when they just tempt him into hand-shaking rages by being wrong, of course).

He finishes it off with an out-of-context quote from Hobbes, that, if taken seriously, means that no one owes anyone anything in internet debates, but which he seems to mean to illustrate that people being mean for just causes should be nicer. I presume this is directed at the theological liberals, but the target doesn't really matter so much as it matters that the problem is not him or the content and consequences of his beliefs.

The hypertrophied sense of justice lies in his own theology. The absence of humility and charity springs from his self-congratulatory self-image as the voice of harmony and reason.

But then, I don't know why you would trust anything a man who puts "webcomics" in quotation marks says about the Internet.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:28 PM on August 31, 2010 [10 favorites]


Malor: I think Charles Stross came at it from a different angle, and said it possibly better and clearer than this gentleman did: what America suffers from is an empathy deficit. We have become savage, fearful, and cruel.

Which is amusing, because the author of the first link isn't American and isn't talking about a debate that's particularly relevant to Americans.

Another point of evidence behind my doubt that this is a new problem comes from the fact that my hometown newspaper ran a decade-long religious flamewar on the letters page back in the 80s that resisted both editorial control and a limit to one letter per week. Like expert trolls, both participants were able to game the editorial policy to keep the tit-for-tat going year after year.

I suspect that flamewars are more visible, but I'm not convinced that it's primarily driven by computer-mediated communication.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:39 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anybody else confuse the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams with the comedians?
posted by pianomover at 4:44 PM on August 31, 2010


On further reflection, what Marty Marx said, although Jacobs reminds me of this other xkcd strip by setting himself up as moral by lamenting both sides of the Anglican split.

Although again, as a member of the Church of England, he should know that if the debate is limited to just ad hominem attacks on the internet, that's a good thing given its rather turbulent history. Even if a faction pulls a political coup by voting everyone else out of the fellowship (as happened to the Southern Baptists back in the 80s), that's a relatively peaceful solution. I have an extremely tough time imagining contemporary Anglicans raising the stakes to paramilitaries, institutionalized discrimination against nonconformists, or civil war.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:59 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


If discourse on the Internet is less civil than it is in other forums, I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of filters. Look at the letters to the editor in your local paper: they're probably full of crazy, but I used to work at a local paper, and you don't want to see the letters that don't get printed. They look just like, well, YouTube comments. Inflammatory, barely legible, paranoid, petty, spectacularly uninformed.

In other words: if you gave people access to a commercial press and an infinite amount of newsprint, you'd see the same crackpot shit in the paper that you see online. The Internet has just given a voice to the crazy that's always been out there.

The anonymity is definitely an issue. A noble belief in the value of civil discourse isn't the only reason we restrain ourselves in face-to-face debates—we also don't want to get punched in the face, kicked out of the bar, or to lose face in front of people we know.

None of those incentives exist online: you can mouth off as much as you want, and the worst thing that will happen is that you'll get banned from that message board and have to find another.

Lastly, one has to remember that a lot of people just can't write very well. Much of the communication I see online—including that from grown adults with houses and kids and professional jobs—would fail a fifth-grade English course. Even assuming that people start with the purest of intentions (which is a big assumption), that's a fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding.

So, yeah—it has more to do with the nature of the medium than with some sea change in values. If you'd picked two American citizens at random in 1850 and asked them to debate a contentious issue—especially if each knew that the other couldn't sock them—I doubt they'd be any more civilized than the average flame war.
posted by ixohoxi at 5:02 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


It would be easier if there weren't so many damned idiots out there.

To be charitable, they didn't ask to be idiots. To be fair, I'm an idiot, too, but not like those guys.

Just kidding. I love all the idiots on the internet, and everywhere they're found.

I've often jokingly said that the internet exists as a medium for smart ass comments and clever quips. It's not entirely a joke. I certainly haven't found that it's very conducive to real dialogue. But that's anecdotal, and I'm sure someone will have found otherwise.

I've got yer dialogue right here, buddy.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:02 PM on August 31, 2010


tl;dr

adequacy.org was funnier
posted by nutate at 5:04 PM on August 31, 2010


So, yeah—it has more to do with the nature of the medium than with some sea change in values. If you'd picked two American citizens at random in 1850 and asked them to debate a contentious issue—especially if each knew that the other couldn't sock them—I doubt they'd be any more civilized than the average flame war.

It might even end in a duel. On the bright side, at least the flame war is permanently over.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:05 PM on August 31, 2010


People were jerks before, just in private.

I was thinking about this sentiment while listening to NPR cover that guy's book about how the internet is making us dumber. I'd wager as a population we've always been stupendously dumb and vapid, but the internet gives every person the ability to reach a wider audience.
posted by odinsdream at 5:07 PM on August 31, 2010


The internet revolution is based on anonymity and the chance to say what we are really thinking without getting punched in the nose, or never getting laid again. People who demand the fake kindness that goes with everyday diplomacy should get out more.
posted by Brian B. at 6:33 PM on August 31, 2010


I do not think this guy's failure to convince the participants of an internet comment thread to stop dismissing the Archbishop of Canterbury is really anything like what Hobbes meant by "bellum omnium contra omnes" at all. I also think when he casts internet commenters' "hypertrophied sense of justice" as part of a systematic cultural entitlement to justice inherited from, among other things, the defeat of fascism, he is really having trouble seeing past his own nose.

But, fuck, I sympathize. It's hard not to see yourself as a crusader for real discourse -- and everyone else as victims of some sort of institutionalized bad-faith-argument-groupthink -- when you're in a situation where absolutely everybody says you're wrong. We see it in metatalk all the damn time.

Frankly, I think one single argument from "humility and charity" does more good than a dozen pseudo-revelatory articles bemoaning the lack of same. As he recounts, "The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated." Regardless of who he feels "bristled" first, I'll thank him not to start digging for motes quite yet.
posted by churl at 9:05 PM on August 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fuck. The link should be "bellum omnium contra omnes", sorry.
posted by churl at 9:07 PM on August 31, 2010


I don't think this article was actually about the Archbishop of Canterbury. It should be clear from the segue which is the smaller and which is the bigger issue.

But then, I agreed with every word and don't have anything to be angry about, so I suppose I shouldn't be commenting at all.
posted by shii at 9:25 PM on August 31, 2010


There's no charity on the internet. Only empty victories.

Today, one of my closest friends told me that they (nongendered verb fight) believed homosexuality was a choice that people made - ostensibly out of a "need for community". A fight ensued. A million times, a million million times, would I rather have that fight with them, than with you, Metafilter. A million times. Because we spoke like people speak, face to face, our emotions plain and honest - our motives illustrated and our beers cold. But here it is a lion's den - and frankly I don't know where to redeem my internet argument victory tickets.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:06 PM on August 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


> I don't think this article was actually about the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I think that -- despite his attempts to cast it as symptomatic of the Grand Scheme Of Modern Miscommunication -- it really was. The writer lost an argument in the comments of a different blog, then went back to his own blog to write about how not only was he right, but the fact that people disagreed with him was indicative of the broader failings of internet discourse.

He's kind of taking his ball and going home and writing about how we should rise above all this ball-playing, plus let's all remember I had more points anyways. If he were actually trying to take the high road, he wouldn't have spent half the article convincing himself he was right about the Archbishop in the first place.

Plus I really think he mangles Hobbes at the end there.
posted by churl at 10:54 PM on August 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


A person who thinks people treat other people badly on the internet because of all the mean words they use when engaging with their ideas one-to-one should look at the system of repression and exploitation that exists in the real world.
posted by DU at 5:03 AM on September 1, 2010


There's no charity on the internet. Only empty victories.

And the tendency to frame things in absolutes certainly doesn't help much here.

I just had a great conversation with someone where we resolved our disagreement and ended up in an exchange of reading lists. It can happen.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:32 AM on September 1, 2010


He's kind of taking his ball and going home and writing about how we should rise above all this ball-playing, plus let's all remember I had more points anyways.

You saw the part about how that online debate and his subsequent removal of Anglican blogs from his RSS feed being several years ago, right? It's not like he was having an argument, got pissy, and decided "I'll show them!" by writing about it on another blog the next day.
posted by Alt F4 at 6:08 AM on September 1, 2010


I'm too lazy to read it, but does this article discuss the healing powers of recipes?
posted by Mister_A at 6:10 AM on September 1, 2010


I catch myself getting into political discussions on Facebook with old high school acquaintances on Facebook that make me feel dirty when I am done. Now I know why I didn't keep up with most of them after I left.

I will say that the discussion on Metafilter is overall the most productive of any message board system I have seen.
posted by zzazazz at 8:08 AM on September 1, 2010


> You saw the part about how that online debate and his subsequent removal of Anglican blogs from his RSS feed being several years ago, right?

I did! Yet he still seems to spend so much time rehashing the debate that I can't help but think his high-minded ideas about internet discourse are totally informed by this and similar arguments. Which is unsurprising when he more or less says he started avoiding this kind of debate because he found himself unable to take the high ground.

> It's not like he was having an argument, got pissy, and decided "I'll show them!" by writing about it on another blog the next day.

It wasn't the next day, but he was having an argument and I do think some of what he wrote had no purpose except to "show them". It'd be unfair for me to ascribe motives to the guy and I hope that's not what I'm doing. What I mean is, he extrapolates some broader ideas but they don't ring true to me. And I think it's because they were originally conceived not as answers to "why can't we have civil discourse?" (we can!) but more as answers to "how could everyone else on the Internet be so wrong?"

I could be wrong, though!
posted by churl at 1:10 PM on September 1, 2010


I think he was just trying to describe a situation that should be familiar to a lot of us.

Perhaps the unsupplied context is that people want to read Anglican blogs to feel in touch with their religion, and a sense of peace generally, and not to bicker with other Anglicans. He's asking why that ideal failed here, and why it fails generally. I think the answer given was quite nice -- because people search for different things on the Internet (i.e. perfect political agreement; this thread is a great example) than they would in a face-to-face conversation. Some people here thought they could restate it in a single sentence or Penny Arcade strip, but if it were that simple then everyone would be able to avoid Internet arguments.
posted by shii at 3:58 PM on September 1, 2010


To many, admitting that one is wrong is seen as a sign of weakness, a crack in the armour. Compromise is also a sign of weakness - one gets accused of being like Chamberlain and not like Churchill.

I agree completely. The problem is that in quite a few situations in our societies, others ARE constantly probing for cracks in armour. Not to mention any names, but the most Hobbesian environments I've ever had the extreme misfortune to find myself in are those that one would generally consider to be near the top of the pecking order, not the bottom.
There's definitely what I think of as a "creeping Byzantification" (yes, I know the Byzantine Empire gets a seriously bad rap, but I'm using "Byzantine" in the current sense of convoluted and Machiavellian) in the higher ranks and among the "best and brightest".
posted by jhandey at 8:34 AM on September 2, 2010


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