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?