A Note On Arguing Online

I spend a fair amount of my time “arguing online” with total and complete strangers. I know this endeavor seems completely fruitless to a lot of people, but I do it anyway for reasons that are not immediately explainable. I think it has something to do with one’s “temperament” or disposition, and I guess that applies to me. I’ve been doing it one way or another since I was approximately 13 years old, so there’s no denying that it bespeaks some ingrained quality.

“Arguing with strangers online” on its face sounds like a categorically worthless thing to spend one’s time doing, and it’s usually framed derisively. However, I enjoy it in some respects, and derive value from it. When you have hordes of people out there hell-bent on challenging and scrutinizing your every point, no matter how ancillary/trivial, it mandates that every point you make be completely rock-solid, whether logically or factually. And it’s a more stimulating activity than sitting around watching TV.

So it’s on that basis that I invite disagreement. I prefer disagreements to be reasoned and premised on mutual good faith, but of course that is not always possible on the internet. There will be trolls. (“There will be blood.”)

I’d put argumentative interlocutors into a few different “categories.” Or let’s say “baskets.”

Basket 1:

Straight-up trolls. Not interested in engaging in any kind of reasoned exchange at all, simply intending to provoke or elicit outrage. Not worth dealing with.

Basket 2:

Trollishly argumentative people. Maybe they are willing to engage in some kind of a back-and-forth, but their intent is not to achieve any kind of mutual accord or actually suss out substantive disagreement. Rather, their intent is mostly to show off to their friends and buddies Online.

Basket 3:

Thoroughgoing, good faith interlocutors who are simply curious and genuinely interested in an honest exchange. A rare breed.

There are probably “sub-categories” within these three, but the most annoying to me is Basket 2. It is with them that the lion’s share of internet communications frustrations lie. They pose as wanting to challenge your point, but they have no interest in engaging with arguments on the merits. Twitter is a format especially suited to people in this basket.

An example of someone in Basket 2. On occasion an internet mole will send me a subtweet that was directed at me but which I did not see over the course of my normal Twittering. Oftentimes, it consists of a bunch of screenshots of tweets I’ve made, plus another screenshot which is supposed to demonstrate that I’m a big idiot. You know the genre.

How am I supposed to know what this person is trying to convey? Can I read his mind? I asked him to formulate his point using words in the English language — he’s supposed to be a professional writer, after all — but he proved desperately incapable of doing this. If he had an actual substantive objection about my alleged misrepresentations of the “Clinton inquiries,” then I would’ve been happy to consider them and respond accordingly. But Tom was either unwilling or unable to do so.

So, he has a grievance, he wants to signal to like-minded Twitter users that he’s expressed this grievance, but he can’t actually do the work of articulating what underlies his grievance. I stated to him directly that I wanted to understand his point and reply to it, in good faith. But he never communicated it.

I often find that online grievances about me are… frequently based on tonal stuff, not based on the content of what I’ve said. That makes it difficult to engage with someone harboring the grievance, because they often cannot express it in an intelligible fashion. If you can express your grievance in an intelligible fashion, let me know. I’ve explicitly invited some of the more unremitting trollish argumentative types — who I’d put in Basket 2 — to challenge me directly in writing or over YouTube chat. If you have a real concern to raise with me, then let’s do it and actually try to achieve resolution, or at least probe the contours of the concern and elucidate what the source of it is. That’s what I’m interested in getting from online “discourse,” rather than constant posturing and vapid in-group sloganeering.

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