Arguing On The Internet

One of the things that distinguish “internet natives” from mere n00bz is that the natives have developed certain skills in the business of arguing on the internet. The most important of these attributes is a sense of proportion, a certain ironic distance that ensures one will not be sitting, furious, at one’s computer, refreshing a page over and over and responding with expressions of all-caps outrage to one’s adversary. Nothing advertises that one is not an experienced flame-warrior more than an absence of this detachment. You type out your self-important, irony-free comments in haste, and regret them at leisure, when, next day, you realise how ridiculous you look. For those who are new to the game, I offer some tips.

Choose your opening position carefully. Beware exaggeration, generalisation, or factual inaccuracy. Someone will crucify you for this later, and it will undermine the rest of the argument. (Corollary: Never pass up the opportunity to crucify your adversary for exaggeration, generalisation or factual inaccuracy)

If you have not been sufficiently careful in defining your opening position, admit it, and move on. Never waste time defending the indefensible. (Corollary: Where possible, force your opponent to defend the indefensible)

Never, and this is key, be the last person to comment. This is where arguing on the Internet differs from other kinds of argument. The goal here is not to get the last word, but to make sure the other guy does. This is because you need at all times to convey the notion that you aren’t really that bothered by all this.

However, you must never actually say this explicitly. If you really weren’t that bothered, you wouldn’t be arguing at all, would you? (Corollary: If your adversary declares him self not bothered, immediately ask him why he’s been arguing all night)

Similarly, never tell your adversary to “get a life”. (Corollary: Always point out to an adversary that if you are a loser, then he, by arguing with you, is worse)

Always double check your comments before posting them. Failing to do so leaves you open to responses like “You spelled “stupid” wrong”

Never forget that you’re just a blogger. Self-importance makes bloggers look ridiculous. This is a trap that journalists often fall into. If you are blogging or commenting you’re just a dude expressing an opinion, even if you happen to work for a newspaper.

Never mention Hitler. (Corollary: Always mention Godwin’s Law) Advanced: Dispute the utility of Godwin’s Law as a principle of argumentation

Never talk about fancy logical fallacies. You look like a tool.

Never tell people what you did in college, as if this clinches the argument. Worse, never say “I have an honours degree in…” (Corollary: If someone says they have an honours degree, you should be safe enough chancing your arm and saying “second class, yeah?” If he’d got a First he would have said so.)

Never use sarcasm. It reads angry and humourless on the screen, for example…

Never begin a comment with “I find it amusing that….” (Corollary: If your adversary uses this phrase, point out that he doesn’t sound amused at all. He sounds fucking furious)

Never commit the Ultimate Arguing On The Internet FAIL (UAIF): leaving two posts in a row, especially when these are the last two posts in a thread. This is like storming out of a room and then coming back in because you forgot your coat.

If your adversary commits UAIF, do not engage with him, as this will breathe new life into the argument. He’s dead. Resist the urge to poke him with a stick.

19 Comments

  • i just did the double post yesterday. on irishelection. but i was not out to win. good article.

    soon enough you’ll be offering internet debating classes to politicians.

  • Fiona says:

    Brilliant! (And many tips taken on board. Including spelling of stupid.)

  • EWI says:

    For those who are new to the game, I offer some tips.

    Ehh, amateurs. Now, back in the day…

  • Fergal. Sweet post. Very timely.

    A corollary to the “Never talk about what you did in College” point is “Never hammer on about how, as an ‘Industry professional’ you think XYZ and all others are tools”.

    Unless of course you are able to link to you receiving an award from your industry for work in just that area, or your linkedin profile bookshelf is full of books you’ve written yourself and had published by real publishers (Lulu.com is tempting but doesn’t count).

    Think President Bartlett in Episode 7 of the West Wing… (go here http://www.twiztv.com/cgi-bin/transcript.cgi?episode=http://dmca.free.fr/scripts/thewestwing/season1/thewestwing-107.txt, and search the page for the word “economic”…

    That is the only real context where you can get away with an ego-based debate.

    Actual rational argument, with facts and things… that’s different.

  • fustar says:

    Back in my first flush of excited internet discovery I used to cruise around message boards (like IMDB’s “Soapbox”) looking to pick fights with loathsome neo-con-lovin’ cretins. This was, of course, fun for a while, until I realised how utterly pointless, exhausting and soul-sapping it all was.

    Those who stay at it too long are trapped in an endless cycle of outrage, where a desire to be RIGHT and to have the final word become consuming (happiness destroying passions).

    With age, and experience, you get to realise that half of these fucknuts are trolls, a 1/4 are morons, another smaller portion are fueled by reactionary rage and so on. The upshot is that NOTHING you ever say, no matter how apparently clever or argument-clinching, will EVER have the slightest effect on ’em. There’s no debate – just a forum for chest-thumping and cock comparison.

    I’ve been far more content since I waved goodbye to all that jazz.

  • Having re-read your post Fergal, you really should try for some form of career in advocacy. Really. You should.

  • EWI says:

    I’ve been far more content since I waved goodbye to all that jazz.

    No, you’re not. Come on back to the Dark Side, you know you want to…

    Btw, was at a social occasion back in February when someone was praising your blog. It felt quite surreal to hear it as a casual conversation piece in a pub (or else I just haven’t been getting out enough in the last couple of years, what with other preoccupations). Has d’Internet finally gone mainstream in the last 12 months?

  • Fergal Crehan says:

    All of these lessons, by the way, were learned the hard way. That’s why the “someone is wrong in the internet” cartoon is so brilliant. Pointless online anger is a stage we all go through, which is what makes it so fun to argue with people who have yet to learn the lessons

  • EWI says:

    Actual rational argument, with facts and things… that’s different.

    Yes. Just look at Sarah Carey, or Eoghan Harris, or David Quinn…

    Point being, that blaming all this on ‘bloggers’ (or people on the Internet, or whatever your poison is) is missing the point. It’s just that when you’re an IT or Sindo opinionator, you get to say these same stupid sorts of things without having to suffer the inconvenience of contradiction within the same pages. Are we to then stop buying newspapers?

    (And yes, I do remember the conversation around ending FIFieFoefum from a couple of years ago)

  • fústar says:

    “Btw, was at a social occasion back in February when someone was praising your blog.”

    Mine? Or T’worth? I’ve never, sadly, overheard anyone praising my blog in public. If I did I’d dash over, leap into their lap, and hug them furiously. Or, y’know, just finish my drink and wander off home.

  • Fergal says:

    I met a reader of this blog “in the wild” recently. It was an unnerving experience, as I’d previously assumed that I had only a half a dozen readers, all personally known to me. I chose not to hug him, but it was a close run thing.

  • […] Arguing on the Internet. A guide. […]

  • Eoin O'Mahony says:

    A brilliant post.

  • EWI says:

    Mine?

    Yours, indeed My own first reaction was “wow – I know that guy!”. Ahem.

  • EWI says:

    I met the first (and so far only, but I don’t get out that much these days) non-other-blogger reader of the Free Stater blog about three years ago now. It was quite a shock (and she turned out to be a Libertarian, but I suppose one can’t have everything).

  • A good effort. Except that you’ve just given away your game plan.

    Now, any argument you make in future online punch-ups can be reduced to/dismissed as one of your tactical tips.

  • Wally Burns says:

    Moderators can delete extreme offensiveness and tangent skating in blog discussions, of course. What I’d like to see, on selected Terribly Intellectual Blogsites, is the occasional managed debate. The host could invite opening statements by two specially chosen controversialists, then allow each of them a few replies each. Then the host could pop in some own questions asking the debaters to clarify points. Finally, after a day or two,(terribly serious, as I said) the visitors to the site would be invited to post their tuppenceworths, for another couple of days (terribly terribly etc.). Finally the two invited star debaters could cap the argumentation by posting a few more argument pieces each. The host could, like a good chairman, sum things up with some personal observations, and thank everyone for their contribution. Then everybody could go off for beer and lattes feeling that they’ve been part of a civilized debate. Is the real world of altercation too different from that?

  • Barry says:

    Godwins law! LOL you sir are worse than Hitler. Great post. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

  • […] Also something i read – credit: tuppenceworth.ie, Fergal Crehan [original link] […]

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