All of these conversations I’ve been having online (as opposed to the dramatic monologues here) have had me thinking about the nature of online discussion, and confronting my own behaviour in them.
What are you like when you’re deep into an argument online? I have two sides: the one which you can see with my postings, which are long, mostly fiercely polite, quasi-grammatical, and, if I may say so, devastatingly reasoned.
You have to imagine me writing these, though, pacing around madly in my bedroom, muttering little speeches to myself and visualizing the horrible death of my correspondent in a hail of unavoidable saucepans. Also I drool, but only a little bit, and only from the mouth.
Is everyone like this? I don’t know, because people don’t like to talk about it. Recently, I’ve been looking at how people manage their own emotions when discussing online. It’s complicated, because the unwritten rules of much online discussion is that “if you emote, you lose”, and others that “if you emote, you win”. Either way, bringing emotions into it changes the game. But what the hell does winning and losing mean?
People talk about the disrespect and ferocity of online flame wars. I think it’s about audience. I think the novel nature of online discussions is that you have a passive, silent audience out there. I think that’s far significant than all that talk of anonymity, or the death of civilized discourse.
The closest equivalent to Internet discussion forums for me when I was young was Paddy, who I lived with. Paddy was a man who could argue for hours without coming up for breath. You’d say your triumphant logicbuster, and magically by the time you’d finished, he’d already have (verbally) posted a five page reply up in your face. I remember one night when I got so mad with him for his relentless logical verbal one-upping that the only snappy come-back I could devise with was to quietly leave the room, go upstairs to the bathroom, spray my entire face with shaving foam so I looked like a giant Michelin head, and then creep up behind him and go “ARRGH!”. I hold that I won that argument squarely and fairly. (You occasionally see this rhetorical device at Prime Minister’s Question Time.)
Anyway, what was annoying with Paddy, as I finally got him to admit one day, was that he wasn’t trying to convince you he was right: he was trying to convince a mysterious third-party.
There was no third-party in our arguments. When we got started both of us could empty a room faster than karoake-ing opera singer.
But on the public Internets, you’ve always got an eye to the third-party. Every talk you see online has an imaginary crowd around it, imaginarily clapping or stomping. Either way, you can’t just communicate these side-line emotions with the person you’re talking to, except by stumbling off into private email. Which is usually about as calming as going outside the bar for the fight. Actually, private email isn’t even private, because there is always this sense it will be magically reforwarded into the public view, exposing your vulnerability to the same audience.
Every discussion is a group monkey dance.