I have a couple of thoughts related to discussing things on the internet that I want to share. These thoughts are about active networking, being effective and having the goal in mind, avoiding unproductive people etc.
Realization of why one is discussing
First one ought to make it clear to oneself why one is discussing on the internet; What is one trying to obtain? Some are undoubtedly there to “fight” battles for a variety of reasons. Perhaps because they deem it fun or entertaining or to get self-confidence by “slaying noobs”.
But I’ll admit that this is not my primary goal. By primary goal I mean that it is mostly not what I aim to get out of a discussion. I aim to improve my philosophical understanding and have a few laughs on my way there. I suppose that this is many people’s desire. At least, the philosopher type people I like to identify with.
However, this outcome, that is, improving one’s philosophical understanding, does not come easy. One has to learn how to communicate in a useful way. By useful I mean a way that is optimal for whatever one is doing. I’m assuming here that one is trying to improve one’s philosophical understanding in a broad sense, and thus I’ll focus on reaching exactly that. In some cases this can be substituted for whatever subject it is that one is interested in. Some of my points may also hold for other subjects.
Is one in the right place? – Part 1
Discussion on the internet usually takes place in forums. Forums are designed to be a good place to discuss. However, some people like to discuss in other places like comment sections, instant messengers etc. I recommend not using a suboptimal medium to discuss in, such as an instant messenger. The reason why instant messengers are not a good communication tool for discussion is that they emphasize the quickness of the response which is irrelevant for a good argument. Good choices are forums and emails or private messages sent via private message systems. Such systems are usually in place at forums.
The reason that they are good choices is that they allow for easy quoting of others’ words, and they give an overview.
There are also differences between them. Forums are more often used as fight places. When talking “public” people are probably more reluctant to admit that they are wrong in order to avoid losing pride. This is a human trait that ought to be avoided if possible. It can be done by remembering why one is discussimg: To get a better philosophical understanding, not to have a renown internet personality. One can reduce the personality issue by being anonymous, so that the only “person” that loses pride is the name on the screen. If it gets really bad, one can always create a new user and start out anew. Forums are better if one’s goal is to get opinions from many people; Such as getting general comments on some important argument. In-deep discussions can hereafter take place either in the public forum or in private communications.
The advantage of email is that the personality issue is less there; People are less reluctant to admit mistakes when there is only one person that will know. Also keep in mind that e-mails can be used anonymously too. A disadvantage of e-mail or private messages is that the information is not publicly viewable. This means that unless one afterward shares the emails with a third part, others will not benefit from reading the discussion.
Is one in the right place? – Part 2
Though, there are other things than the medium to take into account. There is also the community. This obviously relates to the question of whom one is going to discuss with. One would not want to discuss with people who’s goal is to “fight”, as mentioned earlier. One would want to discuss with people who also share the desire of improving one’s philosophical understanding. Such people can be very hard to come by. One should try to get a good look at the forum discussions to get an idea about the general level of the discussion. Afterward one can answer the questions: Is it worth participating here?; What will I probably get out of it if I participate?
Participation, however, might not be needed. There is no reason to just repeat something that was already stated clearly. One can learn a lot by just reading. Think of it like reading a book where one has the opportunity to write something and change the story. This does not imply that one ought to write something. It might be a good idea just to let it run.
Avoiding unproductive people
This is basic networking. Don’t waste your time with people who will not help you reach your goal(s). This could be, but is not limited to, people who like to “fight”, or people who are too stupid to learn you anything. Stay around productive people. Avoid responding to people who are unproductive. If you wish, you can reply that you find them unproductive and thus do not want to engage in discussion with them. In this way it will seem as if you don’t have any counter-arguments, though this shouldn’t matter much to one as it is only a personality issue which I mentioned earlier.
The idea of working beliefs
Suppose you want to examine some proposition. How would you go on doing that? One could contemplate it oneself, and then decide what to believe. The problem is that often when one studies something only oneself, then one will probably miss some things, at least one will miss things that are obvious to other people. Some of these things might be critical to the examination of a belief. If one is really interested in truth, then one wants to see the best arguments for all sides. A good way to get familiar with such arguments is to discuss the issue with people who are intelligent and fairly well-read. This method is especially useful if one cannot find a good article or book published on the issue, or that this is too expensive etc.
Discussions on the internet are typically separated into different threads. This gives a very good opportunity to test beliefs. One can start a new thread and then pretend to believe something, and give the best arguments one knows for that specific belief. Others will then, hopefully. supply counter-arguments. After some discussion one can assess the total available evidence and then form more well-researched belief than if one had only examined it oneself.
However, one should avoid testing too stupid beliefs for that might get reasonable people to think that one is a troll or just really stupid, and thus to not respond to posts that one makes in other threads too.
Another advantage with working beliefs is that one avoids the embarrassment of having been proved wrong. One should simply state in the beginning of the thread that one is defending a working belief to see how it goes.
We’re all fallible creatures. When one doesn’t know what one is talking about, one should admit it. Think about how many times you have been wrong in the past. This is good inductive evidence that you will be wrong in the future; What possible reason do you have for thinking that you’ve got it exactly right this time? (I.e. since the last time you changed your beliefs.) It’s a good idea to keep one’s ignorance in mind when discussing. People generally don’t like people who act or write like they know everything already. After all, if you already know everything there is to know about a subject, why are you on the discussion board? To preach your position?
Of course, one ought not to claim too much ignorance either. People who claim to be ignorant about things they clearly know about are lying, and thus untrustworthy. Realize that you’re not superman, you’re not right about everything you believe, but if you set your mind to it, you will improve your understanding and get rid of many of the wrong beliefs that you hold.
When discussing some completely new problem, i.e. one that was not hitherto known to the participants in the thread, it is probably a good idea to try to invent a theory together that can solve the problem. Other participants are not your enemies, for all you know, you might end up agreeing with them. Try to cooperate with other people to figure out the situation. There is no reason to try to stand out from the crowd. The majority view is not always correct, but it is not always wrong either.
Writing in a friendly language, mind-reading, psychological explanations
Writing in a friendly language may get you some new friends, reduce hostilities from other participants, and help keep focus on the issue in the thread instead of on personal issues. Friends you earn this way may be helpful in reaching your goals too. For instance, they could offer to proof-read and comment articles you write before you publish them.
Try to avoid mind-reading the other participants. If you need to know their opinion about something, ask them. Wrongly assuming their position is unproductive and happens a lot on forums. It will just inflame things with accusations of “straw man!” flying around.
Try to avoid writing psychological explanations of why people believe what they do. Such explanations often beg the question and are thus unproductive. They also, sometimes, insult the other participants. If you find it very important to tell a particular person why you think they believe what they do, then write it in very friendly language and sent it as a private message or email. Such explanations also derail the thread, moving the attention from the issue to other irrelevancies.
Principle of charity, language
As mentioned earlier, after a long discussion it may happen that you come to agreement with the person or persons that you’ve been discussing with. Many times people get stuck in their language choice or use. One ought to realize that common language is broad and can be used in ways you don’t normally use it. One ought to attempt to understand what then other person believes instead of just (almost mechanically) replying to what they write. Sometimes people choose a wrong word to express their belief. Ask yourself what your goal is: Is it to show that some particular belief is wrong, or to find out what the other person believes and to have a productive discussion? Think about it, there are billions of wrong beliefs. One cannot demolish all of them. There is only a point in demolishing a belief when one knows that there are people who believe it.
There is a principle related to this, the principle of charity: When one reads a text and have multiples theories or interpretations of what the author means, one should always assume that the author means the most probably interpretation of the text. If multiple theories are plausible, one should either address all of them or ask the author for clarification.