Having productive internet conversations

Anyone who’s frequented this blog knows I love having discussions, and can pontificate all day on subjects I’m interested in.  I’ve actually been participating in online discussions, on and off, for decades.

My earliest conversations were on dial up bulletin boards.  Those were usually tightly focused discussions about technology and gaming.  With the rise of services like CompuServe, AOL, and eventually the web, the conversations broadened to include other topics.

BBS signon screen. Image credit: massacre via Wikipedia

A lot has changed since the old bulletin board chat rooms, but much of the interpersonal dynamics haven’t.  There have always been a mix of different types of people: those looking for cogent conversation, others wanting to sell an agenda of some sort (technical, political, religious, etc), or trolls simply looking to rile everyone up under the cover of anonymity.

Debates have always been there.  The earliest I recall were about which programming languages were the best.  (Anyone remember 8088 assembler, BASIC, Pascal, Pilot?)  Or about which computing platform was superior (think Apple II vs Atari vs Commodore).  It’s interesting how often time renders old debates moot.

One thing I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, is that you can virtually never change anyone’s mind about anything during a debate.  I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen it happen, and in that small number of cases, it was always someone who wasn’t particularly committed to the point of view they started the conversation with.

That’s not to say that I haven’t seen people change their mind on even the most dug in subject, but it’s almost always been over a period of weeks, months, or years.  If a conversation I participated in contributed to that change, I generally only heard about it long after the change had happened, and then only if the conversation ended on cordial terms.

Why then participate in these conversations?  For me personally, a big part of the draw is testing my own ideas by seeing what faults others can find in them.  It’s one of the things that brought me back to online discussions, including blogging, after a break of several years.

But I’ll admit persuasion remains part of the motivation, although I’ve known for a long time that persuasion is by necessity a long term game.  The best we can hope to do in any one conversation is to lay the seeds of change.  Whether those seeds take root is completely up to the recipient.  Of course, to have any hope of changing someone else’s mind, they have to get the sense that we’re at least open to changing our own.

All of which is why I generally try to avoid getting into acrimonious debates, at least in recent years.  (Not that I always succeed.)  In my view, Dale Carnegie was right, you can’t win an argument.  Trying to win only causes people to dig in deeper and, if the argument goes on too long, causes hard feelings and wounded relationships.  Even if your argument is unassailable, people won’t recognize it in their urge to save face.

This is why my approach is usually to lay out a position, explain the reasons for that position, and then address any questions someone may ask.  If someone lays out their position, I try to ask for their reasons (if they haven’t already given them), and if I disagree, lay out my reasons for disagreeing.  As long as that’s happening in the conversation, an exchange of viewpoints and the reasons for them, I think it’s a productive one, one that I, the other person, or maybe some third party reader might learn from.

One of the things I try to watch out for is when points previously made start getting repeated.  This is easy to miss when a discussion has been going on for days or weeks.  But when we reach that point, the discussion is in danger of, or has already morphed into an argument.  Long experience has taught me that continuing the conversation further is unlikely to be productive.  (There are exceptions, but they’re rare ones.)

For a long time, I tended to end the conversation by announcing we were starting to loop and that I thought it was time to stop.  This seemed like the polite thing to do.  But just in the last year or so, I’ve concluded something many of you already knew, that the last announcement message is also counter-productive, particularly if the debate has become intense.  It’s far better to let the other person have the last word and move on.

This raises an important point, one that also took me a long time to learn and internalize.  Just because someone says something, I’m not necessarily obligated to respond.  This is particularly true if the other person is being nasty.  I always have the option of just moving on.

If I do choose to respond, I’m also not obligated to respond to every point the other person made.  Maybe the point has already been addressed earlier in the thread, or it might be a subject matter I’m not particularly knowledgeable about, or responding to it might involve a lot of effort I don’t feel like putting in right then.  Sometimes it’s a point I’m simply not interested in discussing.

Discussions about science and philosophy have a special burden, because often the topic is difficult to describe, to put into language.  That means for the discussions to be productive, everyone has to exercise at least a degree of interpretational charity.  Just about every philosophical proposition can be interpreted in a strawman fashion, in a way that’s obviously wrong and easy to knock down.  Doing so is easy but it has a tendency to rush a discussion into the argument phase.   A rewarding philosophical or scientific discussion requires that both parties try to find the intelligent interpretation of the other person’s words, and respond to that rather than the strawman version.

When I’m in doubt about how to interpret someone’s statement, I usually either ask for clarification or restate what I think their thesis is before addressing it.  A lot of misunderstandings have been cleared up with those restatements.

If science and philosophy can be difficult, political discussions are often impossible, especially these days.  But again, I find value in stating a position and then laying out the reasons for it.  When people disagree, it again helps to have them explain why.  Often what we take to be a hopelessly uninformed or selfish outlook has more substantive grounds than we might want to admit.  Even when it doesn’t, treating the other person as though they’re immoral or an idiot is pretty much surrendering any chance of changing their mind.

Not that I’m a saint about any of this, as anyone who goes through the archive of this blog or my Twitter or Facebook feeds can attest.  Much of what I’ve described here is aspirational.  Still, since I’ve been striving to meet these standards, my online conversations have become much richer.

All that said, there are undeniably a lot of trolls out there who have no interest in having real conversation.  I think one important aspect of enjoying an online life is knowing how to block jerks.  Every major platform has mechanisms for doing this, and they’re well worth learning about.  I’ve personally never had to resort to these measures, but it’s  nice to know they’re there.

What do you think?  Is my way too mamby pamby?  Too unwilling to reap the benefits of gladiatorial discussion?   Or are there other techniques I’m missing that could make for better conversations?