A History of Arguing on the Internet

Here is something few people know about me: If I don't keep myself in check, I will very easily lose hours and hours arguing with people on the internet. I know this is a common compulsion. Many have probably followed an internet thread, maybe on Reddit or a forum or even YouTube and have suddenly found themselves refreshing every hour to see if their idiot opponent has replied. Because every opponent is an idiot -- not merely someone with a different opinion, or world view, or values, but a flat out tried and true idiot. This is what happens in the anonymous theater of the internet.

I probably started arguing on the internet sometime around middle school in the late 90's and boy, was I good at it. Not good in the sense that I put out well reasoned points and was understood while being understanding. I mean that I was a massive, relentless jerk until I "won" -- meaning, the other person grew tired and stopped replying, which is the only win condition in these sort of things.

I knew little about logical fallacies and even less about proper debate etiquette, and so my style consisted of picking apart responses line-by-line, setting up strawmen and then just slathering it with obnoxious sarcasm. It worked, I guess, for a 13 year old. Most of the arguments were philosophical (religion, racism) or political (the war in Iraq, welfare entitlement). I know: pretty heavy stuff for a bunch of children on a video game forum, right? But imagine these nuanced, complicated and eternal arguments boiled down to a level a bunch of 8th graders could understand. Imagine the arrogance and assumptions and unwavering confidence required for a bunch of kids to do that.

Still, I have no regrets on that. I attribute a lot of my personal growth and learning to my early inclination to call out strangers on their weird political bullshit. It got me into researching, into deconstructing how I felt and why, and eventually taught me how to properly structure an argument. It may be grating and annoying to think about now, but it all worked out in the end.

Except today, I still have that compulsion, and even though I've seen that famous mocking XKCD strip, I can't shake the feeling that someone could be so completely and abhorrently wrong about something I care about. It's easy to shake off in real life. Someone says something dumb, or posts some serious dumb shit on Facebook, and I can think, "Hey, I know this person. This person is a rad dude otherwise. There's no way I can reach that deep into someone's soul and change them, it has to be a situational thing, and hopefully the time and opportunity will come for them to see another side of this thing."

But online? On Reddit?

It's hard not to revert to Internet Batman mode, psychotically and obsessively cleaning up the streets of cyberspace with words. Someone will be all like, "I don't think stereotyping is wrong if it's true" and BANG I'LL COME SWOOPING IN FROM THE SKY "STEREOTYPES ARE A LAZY PREJUDICE YOU CRIMINAL SCUM"

And then we're off to the races for 3 or 4 days. What's new about my more diplomatic, well-reasoned and mature compulsion to arguing on the internet is that it will eventually dread continuing this deathly parade. Sometime during day 2, we will get to the absolute core of the argument, a flat difference in values where we see the same thing and digest it differently based on how we were socialized. But the argument continues, in circles around this one thing, and we both know it. Now it's a game of chicken, and now none of us really want to continue, but we know to move on with our lives is the lose condition.

We can never really change the other. But if they fall into silence, probably to lead a happier and more fulfilling life, then we can at least pretend that we have rocked their world and converted one to the cause. Or at least, shook up someone who had not been shook before.

The funny thing about compulsion, even the ones that drain you wholly, is that I don't wish to be free of it. I just wish all the arguments were simple and effective. Easy wins. I wish they weren't exhauting and futile thought exercises. Some day, I may have to learn my lesson.