Internet Debate Fails: Text

boromir-argument-internet

Hello again my wonderful blog friends. I hope you’re having a fantastic weekend. Here in Kansas City the weather is beautifully overcast in the low seventies, perfect for blogging on a Sunday afternoon. This summer is definitely turning out better than last year, and I’m grateful for that.

In my efforts to branch out my blog I immediately had quite a few ideas come to mind. The one I want to write about today kept getting more involved so I broke it up into a few different sections. I’m calling the ‘series’ Internet Debate Fails. As someone who has involved myself in my fair share of internet debates, and as someone who sees a positive side to them, I want to talk about different aspects of online debates and discussions and the pitfalls involved and why they often fail. First up is the failures of a text-only medium.

Any internet discussion or debate you enter into, unless you’re trading videos on YouTube, which would be awesome, is all done in a text-only format. There are certainly benefits to this level of online discourse that we have, but there are a number of failures. The easiest to see, or the one that frustrates me the most is the limited communication medium of text. Text is just insufficient to incorporate the full nuance and complexity that our language has evolved with.

I’m certain that I am not the only person who has entered into a discussion online and had the person I was talking to completely misunderstand what I was trying to say despite the fact that the words I was using were clear as day for everyone involved to see. The problem is that while intricate and powerful, words alone often fail to communicate exactly what we are trying to say. Whenever I see this is happening, I try to take people through the following mental exercise that I want you to go through with me, it might make you better at online communication. Take the following sentence:

I didn’t say that about you.

Most likely this is a response to an accusation. What does it mean? Well that depends entirely on how it’s said. I’m going to place an asterisk next to each word in the same sentence. Read the sentence out loud and emphasize the word with the asterisk and watch how it changes, or at least adds a whole new level of depth to the meaning of the sentence, when you emphasize that word.

*I* didn’t say that about you. – This implies that someone said ‘those things’ about you, it just wasn’t me.

I *didn’t* say that about you. – This doubles down and reinforces the original meaning that I didn’t say those things about you.

I didn’t *say* that about you. – …but I certainly thought those things about you.

I didn’t say *that* about you. – I said something else about you..

I didn’t say that *about you*. – I said them about someone else. (Yes this isn’t a single word, but emphasizing the preposition doesn’t really do as much and it’s kind of awkward, just go with it.)

Tone, inflection, and emphasis add complexity to our language and our ability to communicate. There are entire levels of speech and types of dialogue, like sarcasm, that are almost completely undetectable when written unless you know important context clues or have a really good relationship with the person doing the typing, which you often don’t have online. As a society we’ve tried to circumvent that problem slightly by adding emoticons (  🙂  😉  😛  etc.), but they’re not always effective, we haven’t agreed on how they should be used, and certain types of people still refuse to use them so their meaning is lost.

Speaking of meaning being lost, I want to address a common issue I’ve been seeing. For anyone older than forty or fifty, you might not understand the following, and yes I know this is kind of tangential, but it needs to be said. In common online usage, if you do something in capital letters, people are going to think YOU’RE SHOUTING AT THEM. If you don’t want that to be how you come across, find another way to emphasize your point.

That brings me to one of the failures in our current online predicament. How do you emphasize a word? Normally you’d use italics, bold, or underline. Yet you won’t find those options on Facebook or any online forums that I see on a regular basis. I’ve taken to adding asterisks as I showed you above, sometimes surrounding it with -hypens- but that sometimes creates formatting issues.

Next is mood, or tone. There is no way that I know of to paint the tone of what you’re saying except the words you choose and the punctuation (period vs. exclamation point). Not exactly nuanced, is it? Putting this into a real situation, let’s take it back to the 2012 Presidential Election. If you’re a democrat commenting on someone’s pro-Romney meme with what you feel are legitimate questions or concerns, the person reading your comments has exactly three things they know about you: They know you disagree with their position, they know the words you chose to use, and they know your profile picture, that’s all. Everything else is left up to them. Are you being sarcastic in your questions? Are you heated and inflammatory, or are you honestly seeking a discussion because you’d like to see their point of view? That is entirely up to them.

Language is so much more than the words we speak. It is nuanced with tone and emphasis, with body language (grinning, winking, rolling your eyes, leaning forward, leaning back, not to mention the amount of things people do with their hands while speaking) and  noises (laughing, dismissive snorts, sighs, gasps, grunts). Written language can relate almost none of that, and yet we use it in every person to person, or even phone conversations (body language not included of course).

This is all just scratching the surface, of course. I guess the main point I want to get across, is that online debates are usually very complicated, and we tend to have them on topics that are sensitive and complex, yet we do them in one of the least expressive ways possible, which is text. The best way to make this work despite the weaknesses in this forum, because I do still believe they are worth having, because I’ve had too many good ones to ignore, is to give the other person a break. Ask a lot of questions, until you have a really good handle on what they’re saying. Begin your posts with, “I think you’re trying to say ______, is that what you meant to convey?” I’ve been constantly amazed at the number of arguments where people actually are really close to agreeing with each other, or finding a compromise, but they’ve spent the last twenty comments or more just talking past each other’s real points at the assumptions they’ve made in their head. I’m definitely guilty of it, but I’d like to see everyone improve on it.

Thoughts, comments, questions, disagreements? Let me know below in the comments! Happy Sunday!

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