Thursday, 7 November 2013

How to Survive the Internet

File:Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement1.svg
Graham's hierarchy of disagreement
A few weeks ago I blogged about an unfortunate incident involving my luggage and it garnered a LOT of comments not only on my blog but all over the world as it went viral. I was heartened to see how civil the majority of posters were despite the incendiary subject matter. It surprised some people to learn that I don't censor or delete comments from my blog because the overwhelming majority of commenters were well behaved and seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

But you'd expect to hear hymnal choruses in your own digital echo chamber.

With this in mind, I'd like to post a far-from-comprehensive guide to surviving the Internet, with respect to comments and social media posts. The suitcase incident went crazy, and I survived the ensuing debate (read: shitstorm) by keeping the ideas below in mind.


It might not feel like it, but a contrary opinion is not a personal attack. When someone disagrees with you, don't take it to heart. It's a golden opportunity to test your idea/belief in the marketplace of ideas. You have a rare opportunity to show someone why you believe your idea to be true, and the privilege of having your thoughts probed for weaknesses and inconsistencies.

Hitler was Little-Endian.
(tip: Avoid Godwin's law)
If your position comes away looking like Swiss cheese, be grateful that you have an opportunity to revise and strengthen your ideas. An argument is the civilised exchange of ideas that help both parties inch towards truth.

Of course, I'm using the academic./philosophical sense of argument. Arguments filled with shouting and broken crockery -- the type of arguments we grow up knowing -- have no winners. The person who shouts loudest and last feels like they won, but they really haven't convinced their opponent of their position; nobody is closer to discovering the truth. If you failed to convince somebody of your point, repeating it with the full blow of your lungs won't bridge the chasm.

I'm not going to go into specifics of how to have a constructive argument, though I wish I was qualified to do so. But if you'd like to learn more about it a good place to start is to learn about logic: inductive and deductive reasoning, and fallacies.

Everything  is debatable
I was informed last week "Scripture is not debatable! End of Story!" Of course, everything is debatable -- especially musty tomes -- but I suspect their reluctance was more born of fear than respect for a Holy book.  If a subject is not up for debate, then you need to take a deep look into yourself to discover where the reluctance stems from. In this particular case I think the consequences of a revealing argument could damage the arguer's social and family life, and they'd rather shield themselves from being persuaded to an opinion that could isolate them from their religious clique.

Don't restrict yourself to questioning other people's motives, question your own motives too.

There are good and bad reasons for believing. The scripture case above is a bad reason for a truth-seeker, but seems perfectly reasonable to the individual involved because the personal cost of upheaval is great. In this case, willful ignorance has been leveraged to maintain a social norm. "Keep 'em angry, keep 'em stupid," is also effective at stifling an individual's ability to think clearly, participate in debate and inch closer towards truth. Conditioning someone to be incensed at the mere suggestion of debating an idea is an effective shield against contrary thought. Dogma, tradition and authority are bad reasons for deriving a belief.

Which leads nicely to: pick your fights. You can tell early on if a productive and mutually beneficial exchange is possible. Angry taunts and "end of story" attitudes are good indicators of when to expend your energies elsewhere.

Always be civil! If you can keep yourself in the upper three segments of Graham's hierarchy of disagreement (pictured above) you are doing well; no productive debate, or truth, can be dredged up from below. Ignoring the haters and name callers goes a long way towards making your time online more productive. Trolls will drag you down to their level then beat you with experience.

You can't please all of the people all of the time. So don't bother trying!

Finally, hold your beliefs lightly.

These things are easier said than done. But with a bit of luck, we might just survive the Internet.

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