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All posts for the month November, 2014

Back before the Internet became ubiquitous, we had bulletin board systems. These were basically one computer with a modem, running software that simply recorded typed conversations between users. This was different than e-mail, because all members of the bulletin board could read the messages, you had an audience, and there was a record of what had been said up to that point that was easily reviewable. One of the weirdest things I learned about when first getting into this was that the list of conversation messages was called “a thread.” It conjured an image of the Greek Fates, mythological goddesses who spun the thread of life through all creation. Really sounded quite splendid.

Threads became a new way of holding discourse. Back in the day, for me mostly, this was about the cool new science fiction shows that were coming out, or the latest novels, things happening in your college, or how to fix your computer. Useful, friendly topics that rarely started significant arguments.

mainOne thing you have to understand here is that you 1) had to be personally identified and allowed on most bulletin board systems, and 2) the owner of the system could disallow your access if you weren’t behaving. This was coupled with the fact that computers were expensive, most people who had them were fairly well educated and working in technology, and for the most part were well-behaved. The early Internet was pretty good at policing itself, and people knew that their reputations were worth something in the long run so they protected them.  Of course there were exceptions, this was where the term “internet troll” or “trolling” originated, as well as the occasional “flame war“,  but calm discourse was pretty much the norm.

When the Internet explosion became a thing back in the 90’s (go read about Eternal September for more background) all this changed, and not necessarily for the better.  Public conversations rarely take place these days without some element of name calling or button pushing at least. There’s also a subtext of “winning” the conversation, and for a few disturbed individuals taking on the if you can’t win it disrupt it so that the neither side can continue a thoughtful discussion. Lately, things have really gotten out of hand with threats of violence, revealing of personal information, and other overreactions to a message, post, or review. It is beyond disturbing.

kevin-smith-flameAnd yeah, I’ve risen to the bait in my own share of conversations, typically throwing the 2nd stone but realizing towards the end that there was a big pile of stones there that was so easy to amass. I can’t say that I’ve ever felt real satisfaction from such incursions. No opinions were likely changed, no votes cast in the opposite direction no matter how well-crafted my argument or sly my innuendo. It wasn’t even a good way to blow off steam, as the process of creating the steam left more heat in it’s place.

OK, officially dialing-down the metaphors.

So what’s the point? I guess the point is that I’m consciously not taking part in this any more. There’s no bigger waste of time on the internet than expecting that your heated point will sway the opinion of someone similarly heated. And to your audience you likely look like you’ve lost perspective in the long run.

Acknowledging this, we still have to deal with the desire and drive “to win.” Yeah, that’s tougher, because there’s really no way to score this stuff fairly.  Sure, one side can call all their buddies in to bolster the “likes” on their argument, but that really proves nothing in the end. Winning is ambiguous, both sides will claim it even when both fail to compose rational and measured points. There are no judges, no awards, no final score. You have to be able to walk away, and that takes more courage than staying and “fighting.”

And I’m really tired of the whole thing, so I’ve taken on four guidelines for myself in crafting an argument.

  1. The argument must be about the thing, not the people in the discussion.
    There is nothing to be gained by simply saying the other side has no right to their opinion due to mental ability/background/religion/party/etc. An argument is only positive when actual factors of the conflict are being discussed.
  2. Try to be a “one and out” commenter.
    This is harder, but it’s important. Craft the whole of your comment clearly and succinctly.  The shorter the more likely it will be read. Again, removing attack words will shorten your prose. Ignore personal attacks, those take up more time than they are worth.
  3. When you aren’t able to do the “one and out” at least wait for more voices between you and the opposing opinion.
    Again, it’s better if your original post stands on it’s own, but occasionally there is room for clarification. That clarification should typically be shorter than your original post.
  4. Realize when the discussion has gone toxic and walk away.
    That’s it, just walk.Find the “unfollow” button and use it. Don’t look back.

And if you’re in search of solace as you step back, remember…

Living well is the best revenge. – George Herbert

There’s an additional secret here, but I’m saving that for a follow-up post.

So that’s it. Simple. Not easy, but simple.

As always I hope my own example serves you well, and I’m interested in your comments.

calm_waterI have to admit, I’m as guilty as anyone.

The world seems to be a place of gratuitous anger these days. Thoughtlessly overreacting to imagined or real slights, the road rage of the information superhighway threatens to destroy all reasonable or at least sensible conversation.

The promise of open discourse between people who, up until a couple of decades ago, might never have spoken at all is in dire jeopardy. Those strangers meet expecting a fight, preparing for one, and even the slightest misstep on the part of the other can launch into a verbal jihad for which a simple “I’m sorry” can hold no healing.

And it’s really kind of silly. We know nothing of the “enemies” we make via Twitter feed or news commentary. We either attack or defend against “idiots” and “morons” who are possibly more educated on facts and figures than us, but they had the audacity to contradict or disagree with our opinions.

There are times when I really start to give up hope for humanity. I think that perhaps an armageddon from space or germ disaster on our little green marble wouldn’t really cost the universe much in the long run. There are so many people out there being selfish, self-absorbed, and just rude to their neighbors that maybe we really don’t deserve this long-term blessing of the lovely planet in the miracle of this universe. We simply aren’t, as a whole, living up to the promise of what we could be.

Of course, thats from the darker times. Other times I’m incredibly impressed by the works of people who could otherwise ignore everything that’s going wrong in the world, but don’t. Bill Gates for one. He’s probably the most vilified billionaire on the planet. People blame him for everything from Windows Vista to the virus they got from browsing (ahem) videos on the internet. But upon retiring he got to work looking at the world’s broader problems, fixable stuff, and then he started fixing it.

Personally, I’ve started being annoyed with myself. My skin is too thin, my anger too quick to rise. I felt the need to dial it down a bit. To put some perspective in my own life, which is really pretty good. This does not mean I will forgive Amazon for problems with a shipment that they’ve failed to get to me on time, nor will I turn the other cheek when a company changes a price or terms at the last minute. I will not become complacent or a willing victim. But I will endeavor to not turn to anger over such things.

And in this blog, this journal of such attempts to remove unthinking anger from my life, perhaps I will learn more about the goal and share it with others.

Because I suspect we all should dial it down a bit.

-Ric Bretschneider
Nov 8, 2014 3:13 PM PST