Saturday, August 2, 2008

Arguing on the internet

I got into a the kind of situation a couple of weeks ago that I had thought I'd rendered myself immune to. I was posting on an internet photography messageboard about a picture, by a famous photographer, that most people seem to like but which really bothers me. So I hotlinked to the image and laid out a little argument about why the picture wasn't really very good, why it was ultimately kind of dishonest, aesthetically speaking, and not among the photographer's best stuff.

Well. I expected people to disagree with me. But many of the angriest, most insulting comments came from people who didn't understand why I was getting all bent out of shape about a photograph. One person said I reminded him of all the assholes he knew in art school. Another guy said that sometimes a picture is "just a picture." Someone else just said "bullshit"; two separate posters told me to "lighten up." Another forum member tried to tell me what an idiot I would sound like to the photographer, as if wanting to be admired and congratulated by the artist was something I would ever aspire to.

I should have abandoned the thread, but I kept going back in. If you like art, I argued, shouldn't you form passionate opinions about it? Shouldn't small things matter? And as for the photographer's opinion, did anyone really care? Does anyone really think that an artist's opinion of his own work is worth a damn? I reiterated what I'd said a few months back, at a reading, when someone raised the question of discovering the definitive meaning of a book: "If you want the wrong answer, ask the author."

It was all pointless. For that evening, I was a pariah, or at least my forum personna was. I actually couldn't sleep--I got out of bed at one in the morning, turned the computer back on, and kept on arguing. Eventually, I gave up. A few people were on the same page as me (thought some of them disagreed with my argument), but they were neither in the majority, nor among the loudest commenters.

I suppose I thought I was still on this blog, where passionate, contradictory, and poorly supported diatribes are the norm, and spirited debate about tiny things has a lot of value. But I dunno--aside from here, I don't think I'm going to be arguing with people on the internet anymore. It takes a special online community to have a decent discussion, and perhaps there aren't too many out there that fit the bill. Even here, the soapboxes belong to Rhian and Ed and me, and we can always tamp down comments with a new post. Blogging isn't a democracy--indeed, it can easily slip into insularity and self-aggrandizement (though I hope we don't make those mistakes here). Genuine reasoned debate, in an egalitarian online forum, is rare.

What, if anything, do you get out of arguing with people online? Does doing so cause you more anxiety than enlightenment? Or have you found places where it really works--where it feels like a good college class, or book group, or front-stoop rap session, or whatever?

22 comments:

Matt said...

I think you're wrong about that.

rmellis said...

I love arguing. I get it from my mom. JR, do you remember the night before our wedding, when I stayed up late arguing with my mom about Stephen King? Sheesh!

It's why I'm taking a break from reading other blogs -- I'm drawn to internet arguments like a rat to cheese...

jrlennon said...

Oh my...that Stephen King debate wasn't about Stephen King, you recall. It was about...

...wait for it...





ELITISM

Pale Ramón said...

Try posting on a sports blog, where testosterone levels run high and statistics rule the day. Disagreements about whether "clutch hitting" actually exists all too quickly turn into pissing contests. A losing season helps mollify some of the bigger egos, but you still have to put up with a lot of noise. Infield chatter it ain't.

Go, Braves!

AC said...

I don't post on very many blogs. I made the mistake of posting what I thought was a supportive comment (with a bit of qualification) on my own brother-in-law's blog once, and I ended up spending the next three weeks arguing a close reading of various lines in my post, his original post, my first response, his second. I'm not sure to this day if he knows that was me, and it still makes me squirm wondering if he really thinks I'm an ignorant, brainwashed, Nazi straw man who ought to be shot.

The reason it went on so long was that I felt compelled to make rational, logical arguments in response to his namecalling. I just couldn't stop. I had to make him acknowledge at least one reasonable point, or it would have looked like his inane blustering had shamed me into silence. I finally had to say that I was leaving for a vacation and wouldn't be able to post any further. And then I had to make a real effort not to go back to the blog again to see what his response was.

The whole experience was a bit surreal. I felt like I had drawn a little smiley face and it had been stomped on by the entire letters to the editor section of Maximum Rock and Roll.

k. said...

Well, hey, now I wanna see that photograph and your analysis of it...

Warren Adler said...

Blogging can be good for your mental health, unplugging emotions, releasing frustrations, etc. However, sometimes I wonder where all the haters come from. How are they spawned? Was Thomas Hobbes correct? Are humans an evil, unruly species that can only prosper peacefully under controls?

David Rochester said...

Personally, I get absolutely nothing out of it, which is why I don't do it. A respectful, though passionate, exchange of differing opinions may or may not be an argument per se; I don't tend to think of it as one -- I think of that as debate. The difference is in whether the dissent is about the opinion, or the person giving the opinion.

This is debate: "I don't agree with what you said, because of blah blah and blah. My experience has been that blahdy blah blah. Have you considered blah, and blah?"

Whereas much Internet arguing is this: "You're an idiot for thinking that, and you have no aesthetic sense, and also, you have the head of a chicken."

I don't know what anyone could get out of that, frankly, unless they enjoy regressing to the cognitive belligerence of grade-school children. But ya know -- a lot of people do enjoy that, because they're still little kids at heart, and little kids are bullies through and through.

Elizabeth said...

Hmm. I think people tend to swagger more when they're online; they try out exaggerated personas or, at least, arguments, because there's not much to lose. When I feel compelled to check my own manners, I ask myself if I'd say what I'm about to say if the target were standing behind me in the market checkout line, rather than receiving my message through the vast series of Interweb tubes.

Arguing about ideas does one of two things: it either persuades you of another's viewpoint, or it cements your own. According to the people who study and write about discourse, we overwhelmingly gravitate to places where views are similar to ours--where there's a whole lot of preaching to the choir. (Hence Fox News?) We're wired to seek out and establish community. And we are exponentially more likely to argue in order to affirm (not necessarily advance) our pre-existing views than we are to change those views in the course of an argument, however erudite the contrary views may be.

In fact, to answer JRL's particular question: I think I argue in order to affirm my intellect. It's much more rewarding to hold my own in a discussion with someone I consider smart than it is to one-up a numbskull. It also makes me feel insecure to step into a deep pond, so when I do I tend to dwell on it more than I should.

Interesting subject.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Who says I have the head of a chicken?

estelle said...

i do not like arguing in general, as i am a non-confrontational person, and was not brought up in a house where debate/discussion was common.

but i think arguing is much worse on the internet because of the anonymity + not face-to-face = security screen equation. i even get stressed out even leaving sweet, friendly comments on blogs.

it is one thing to (un)wittily banter with someone over a glass of pinot, where your words can flutter off never to be precisely recalled by anyone (insert disclaimer about exceptions here). it is quite another to publish something in public and in written form, where people who don't know your intellectual habits, or you, have little reason to respect the fact that there is a person behind the post.

i agree with david's comment above about the form of a lot of internet arguing and concur that it is basically bullying rhetoric, which obviously also happens in person, but looks great on the internet because the only sensible comeback is "????????????????????????".

Eli Regan said...

out of sheer curiosity, what photograph was it & who was it by?

I doubt you'll answer, but it's worth a try!

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