Gordon Smith

You on the Internet, comment at me, bro

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Image: No Country for Old Men (Miramax/Paramount 2007)

I have something to admit. I live for the low blows and logically-inept battleground of Internet comment boxes. I know it’s a war where nothing is ever won, but I shoulder arms nonetheless.

 

 

 

Something happens to my brain in the post-semester pre-semester ether. It’s as if the sudden lack of academic tasks, the thrill of the chase for that big break, that one interview to rule them all, lulls my cranial zones into a state of stasis.

Gone is the chance of nuanced, educated debate, or the prospect of a fiery war of words with a non-too-friendly spokesman, or a politician who is more slogan than sense.

Instead, my grey matter turns into a simplified, almost decorative mass of decaying YouTube videos and poorly recalled 1990s television theme songs.

What’s a boy to do, when remaining in this almost vegetative state means the very worst of growing pains come the start of next semester?

Where does one turn to for that journalistic thrill, aside from the static noise of ABC News on repeat, and ad hominem repetition of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, as if rehearsing by rote for an upcoming recital?

The answer: the comments section on social media.

Except that’s not quite what one could consider “nuanced, educated debate”. More “yelling at a wall until the wall stops yelling back”.

Yes, much as it won’t stop my almost hypnotic nightly ritual of diving head first into the comment section of news outlet x, y, nor z, the fact is that such an exercise is as much an attempt at self-harm as it is an attempt at furthering any intelligent discussion.

While it may feel all kinds of satisfying to pull someone up on their 19th century misgivings about the morality of homosexuality, or their perception that all political parties are as bad as the rest, complete with a well-researched, well annotated take down of each and every point they’ve spluttered up, that satisfaction is all but lost when that take down is dismissed as being “too long”, “leftist nonsense”, or best of all, straight up “bullshit”.

I know this, you know this – the whole damned fibre-connected first world knows this.

Yet I, along with hundreds (if not thousands) of people, commit this ritualistic act of self-harm, weaving replies far more developed than any piece of assessment we’ve ever submitted.

Think about it. If someone said to you in real, not-connected-by-wires-life, that they believed women should be subservient to men, would you really spend the next ten minutes giving them a lecture that would make even your most dull of tutors yawn?

Some are so committed to the cause of electronic enlightenment that they have become regular fixtures in their preferred outlet’s comments section.

It gives me no pride in saying that it is to the point that I can even recognise when some of these commenters have updated their profile picture, or if I have seen them rehash an argument. But, naturally, given that yours truly may well be considered one of those fixtures, it is safe to say that some of the Internet’s best minds congregate in these spaces.

So why then is it that the already-made-up-minds of users like Barbara or Wilma, or Abraham or Peter, or any other stereotypically geriatric name, remain entirely unmalleable by the lightning fast wit of those of us already at the cusp of debating prowess?

Is it because the School of Hard Knocks – and its tertiary cousin, the University of Life – produces scholars at a standard far beyond that of real-life-actual-educational-institutions? Almost definitely not.

Commenting on social media simply will not resolve anything.

That’s at least according to professor of psychology at Austin’s University of Texas, Art Markman, who says that as much as writing lengthy monologues about how and why what someone is saying is offensive, wrong or a fun combination of the two, may make it feel like you are accomplishing something, you are basically guaranteed to in fact be making no difference at all.

The longer your soliloquy, the more entrenched you can make your opponent’s – is opponent the right word? – point of view.

You may think you have masterfully shown someone how legalising same-sex marriage will not, in fact, lead to inter-species intimacy, but in the process, you have just made their vision of a dog walking down the aisle all the more vivid.

The comment section on social media… Not quite what one could consider “nuanced, educated debate”. More “yelling at a wall until the wall stops yelling back”.

This is by no means something unique to the Internet, or something that magically took shape the moment humans started using their phone lines for something other than long-winded, half-hearted conversations with their great aunt at Christmas time. But the anonymous, distant nature of the Internet means it is easier than ever for our brains to dehumanise our debating manner.

Think about it. If someone said to you in real, not-connected-by-wires-life, that they believed women should be subservient to men, would you really spend the next ten minutes giving them a lecture that would make even your most dull of tutors yawn? Unlikely.

Put that person on the other side of an LCD monitor, and suddenly everything changes.

As Sean Jones, employment and sports law QC explains, “bullying people into silence, as can happen on Twitter [and Facebook], turns out to be a very poor way to persuade them you are right.”

If you have any hope of changing someone’s mind – and let’s be honest here, you probably don’t – simplicity is key.

“Deal with one point at a time. People who feel a pillar of their argument crumbling will leap to another.”

Indeed, as much as it may feel like the online gods are smiling at your APA-referenced, perfectly layered essay of a comment, you are far more likely to make an impact if you tackle things in a piece-by-piece, dot-pointed fashion.

Don’t feel like the onus of truth falls entirely on your duelling partner, either.

While it may be easy to demand your foe defend and extrapolate on their sources until they are blue in the face – or finger tips – if your information really is the e-bee’s knee’s, you shouldn’t feel put out by requests to justify your research. (Though, if you’re researching anything before making a comment on social media, you probably should step back and assess just where exactly it is your online life went off track.)


Also on The Big Smoke


Finally, in the great, almost definitely unwinnable crusade against Internet ignorance, your greatest weapon may not be the words you use at all.

You may think that the flak you are copping is because you are winning the argument, or because the person you are (sort of) interacting with is just straight up a nasty piece of work, but things are rarely, if ever, that bad.

On the web, no one can hear you scream.

If you must continue to fight the good fight, a friendly face here and there can mean the difference between “hey, just so you know I’m not angry and I’m not attacking you, there’s just no way to convey a tone of voice or emotion through plain text” and “you are the worst person I have ever encountered and every moment you exist brings me great discomfort.”

Even with this all said, at the end of the day, your after-comment glow is as self-serving as it is hollow.

Social media was not borne out of a desire for great intellectual exchange, nor was it made to shift decade-long prejudices.

As a self-confessed social media commenter, I can attest to the pointless nature of online arguments.

If someone truly, really truly, is as homophobic as the Liberal Party backbench, or as racist as a One Nation tea party, no amount of arguing – in essay length or in easy to read dot-points – is going to change their mind.

My tip for anyone looking to jump into the online debating fray? Don’t do it.

Because once you’re in, you can’t stop.

As much as you know you are fighting a losing battle, and that your attention is better served by the new Magikarp game, those little thumbs ups accumulating in your notifications panel will ensure your focus remains entirely on the purgatory that is social media.

Before you know it, that delicious Big Mac you bought for lunch is stone cold, and you’ll still only be halfway through your first comment.

Still, sure beats watching the same old YouTube playlists for the third day running.

Or anything on commercial television, for that matter.

 

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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