Greta Christina wrote recently about online anonymity and its pros and cons in discussion. I find when reading her posts I often feel compelled to comment at length and in this case the length was sufficient to justify an entire blog post.
The thrust of her argument is that although online anonymity is a mixed blessing, it is still a blessing.
The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.
I agree with her on this. So why am I writing? “Greta Christina thinks anonymous online discussion is a good thing” is hardly news. However, I do have a few things to add.
There are more benefits to online discussions. I think the quality of my debate is far higher online than face to face. Debating in person is not something I feel particularly good at, although I am trying to improve through practice. Usually, I find my memory lacking, my temperature rising and I often get nervous in the face of confrontation. Even if the topic isn’t inherently emotive I have an emotional reaction, which doesn’t help me get my point across. Plus it’s embarrassing and frustrating!
However, online both parties have more time to cool off and digest what the other person has said and make their own points as precisely as possible. There’s less temptation to blurt out the first thing which comes into your head, which may not be what you’d really like to say. That’s in an ideal world. On the flip side it can turn into a cut-and-paste war of quotes and links where no one really thinks for themselves. Debating online also doesn’t stop people from typing in the first thing which comes into their heads or from responding emotionally or ignoring their opponent’s points – but I do think it makes it easier to be a good debater – if you’re willing to take the time and effort.
On numerous occasions I’ve found myself feeling like I’m losing a face-to-face debate despite the poor quality of my opponent’s arguments. Only hours later do I realise what I should’ve said. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this. It’s extremely frustrating. Anyone who’s got into a conversation with a barrister (courtroom lawyer) will know what I mean. They’re quick-witted, persuasive and good at talking. Some of them however, seem unable to get out of the competitive mindset. There’s definitely something fishy about their arguments, but you can’t quite marshal your own arguments fast enough to catch them out. Their aim is not to find out what’s true, but to convince a jury (whether real or imagined) of what’s true. It’s not investigation, it’s marketing.
Part of what I do for this blog is face to face debates with people, so I’d like to improve the way I debate in person. I sometimes wish I could take some of those wit-powered debates online – asking them to “step online” (rather than “step outside”!). Obviously this isn’t always practical.
So failing that I try to research the topics which interest me online beforehand then avoid getting into any debates for which I haven’t already considered the arguments and counter-arguments. That might sound like cheating, but for now I think it’s better than getting angry, upset and frustrated.