It is possible to have productive discussions on the internet. I have seen it happen. But that tends to be the exception rather than the norm. In a sort of taxonomy of bad comments (and bad commenters…sorry, but it tends to be the same people over and over again), I’ll list some of the behaviors that bother me.
I freely admit that I’m wrong sometimes. Unlike many people you will meet on the internet, I am a belief updater, a Bayesian. I have to adjust my Bayesian priors now and then. Don’t take any of the references to previous comments below as an indication that I was definitely right or my interlocutor was definitely wrong in that particular exchange. And it’s extremely likely that the other person would not accept my framing of the exchange that I am describing. That being said, there are certain good and bad habits to commenting, and to correspondence in general, that are best highlighted with examples. I think avoiding these bad habits generally leads to more productive discussions and leads thoughtful people to better belief-updating practices.
1) Hobby-horsing: What’s that, you say? This thread can be illuminated by injecting your favorite topic? Just like every single goddamn thread you comment on? Stop trying to shoehorn your “unique insights” into every discussion topic. If you had an unproductive comment thread regarding your favorite topic on someone else’s page, take that as a sign that it’s a bad venue for airing your exposition. Your idea may even be a good one. It’s just not relevant to every single conversation on the internet. I had one interlocutor who repeatedly interrupted my posts with demands that we discuss the process of human decision-making. I was unable to use words like “voluntary,” “choice”, and “decide” without getting sucked into his favorite bull-session. After several unproductive threads along these lines, I finally told him I was done. I would pursue his line of questioning further only if there was a concrete example where the exact definition of the word we all know changes the conclusion. Hobby-horsing has derailed many a good comment thread.
2) Missing the Point: I’ve had so many comment threads that look like the following. Me: “Hey, here’s an argument that X isn’t true.” Bad Commenter: “Silly! Everyone knows X!” Me: “Um…see above. Feel free to join the conversation at any time.” I’m remembering a particular example. After a series of posts challenging the assertion (which I don’t believe) that “median incomes have stagnated since the 70s,” someone essentially posted the standard argument that “median incomes have stagnated since the 70s.” If you’re not willing to actually engage with someone’s argument or evaluate the evidence offered, don’t bother.
3) Obscurantist Theorizing: Sometimes an argument needs to be formalized or stated in the language of some academic guild. That’s fine when it’s absolutely necessary, but productive conversation usually requires talking to people in plain English. This can involve delving into the technical details, but the “plain-English” interpretation is also needed (even if you are communicating to your specialized academic guild, but *especially* if you’re talking to a general audience). I once had an interlocutor who thought his education in biology gave him special insights into certain political and economic questions. He had blathered on several times in various threads with something about how “human beings are social.” Several requests for clarification of his point were fruitless. It’s possible that he had some kind of point but I was simply unable to grasp it (even though I have a decent education in biology myself). It’s more likely that he fooled himself into thinking he had a deep thought by stating things in the most obscurantist way imaginable.
4) Pure Snark: Of course there is (at least) one wrong person in each argument. The correct approach is to assume it’s you and present an argument that would convince an honest skeptic. If your entire comment is an “Oh, Jeez!” or a “Really!? Reeeeally?” or a “Yeah, right!” or a “That’s absurd!”, don’t bother. If you’re tempted to react this way, you probably have given no thought to *why* the person believes something absurd. A human being, who is capable of higher thought, wielding the most complex structure in the universe (the human brain), has somehow reached a conclusion that you find implausible. This should be seen as an interesting puzzle, not a risible infraction. Keep your snark to yourself. Mentally rewrite all your snarky comments as “You’re stupid for thinking that,” because that’s what you’re really saying. If you actually want a productive conversation, try rewriting a snarky comment as, “Your argument seems to imply (really implausible thing that nobody could possibly believe). Is that really where you want to go?” or “Your argument seems to ignore (incontrovertible facts X, Y, and Z). Can you explain how your worldview is consistent with these observations?” Even snark added to a thoughtful comment can derail an otherwise productive thread. Pure snark without content is considerably more annoying. Stop using it. It’s a bad faith move.
5) Deriding the Importance of the Topic: Don’t bother commenting if you’re not interested in the topic. And don’t complain that the topic is trumped in importance by some other topic. There are threads elsewhere to handle those other items. You wouldn’t go to a Bronie convention and say, “Why are you spending your time and money on My Little Ponies!? Why aren’t you solving world hunger!?” Your thing might well be an important topic or a devastating social issue, but don’t derail every conversation by comparing it to child starvation. I recall once commenting on slightly old news (like, two weeks old), because I thought I had something interesting to say about it. Someone piped up with “Jeez, why are people still talking about it even?!” If it’s not an important topic of conversation, the solution (for you) is to stay out of it.
6) Get Your Own Blog: Comments that come close to or exceed the length of the original post are borderline rude. Try to be concise. Yes, you have a very deep and important point to make and it takes a lot of space to fully make your case. But if your response requires this much exposition, write your ideas up to your own blog and link to it. Don’t post a comment so long that nobody will want to read it. Even when people *do* respond to your long-ass comment, they will likely respond only to part of it, or only to their own summary of the main idea of your argument, which will leave you feeling cheated. And you kind of set it up that way. I have a tendency to do this, and I have to keep it in check all the time. My instinct is to fully explore the argument presented and preempt any criticism that comes to mind. When you’ve reached your 4th or 5th paragraph, consider writing up your own blog post.
7) Diarrhea of the Pen: Similar to 6), but with more sheer blather. Write out your comment in a Word document, read it over a few times, check for spelling and grammar errors, check to see that the flow of the argument is easy to follow and that after-the-fact insertions into the body of your text actually fit and don’t disrupt the flow of your argument. I have seen very long, rambling, incoherent comments with so many spelling errors that the author could not have possibly been thinking clearly about what they were saying. I personally find this quite rude. It’s like saying, “Look at this wonderful thing that fell from my magnificent brain. Behold! And please sort it out for me, because I didn’t have the time to do it myself.” It’s fine to have a little diarrhea of the pen, but it’s nice if you clean up after yourself.
8) Rapid-Fire Comments and Links: Similar to 7), but with multiple comments after a single post. Also like in 7), it shows that the responder isn’t thinking very deeply or hard about the argument, but rather is just reacting. The solution is similar to 7). Write down your argument carefully, in one comment, and trim anything that’s superfluous. Re-read and revise several times before posting. I once had someone repost the *exact* same link two or three times in the same thread. He would post five or six rapid-fire responses to each of my long-considered responses to him. It left me feeling cheated, like I was giving his arguments full consideration and he wasn’t even entertaining mine. I would sometimes find a post littered with multiple (sometimes more than a dozen) short comments by one of these guys. It emerged later that he’d reacted to the post as he was reading it but before he’d finished; he might have saved us both considerable time if he’d read the entire post and responded to it *in its entirety.* Sometimes an author anticipates and responds to your criticism; rapid-fire response commenting often causes you to post a criticism that author is already responding to. Don’t waste everyone’s time with this stuff. If you aren’t bothering to read someone’s argument, your reaction to it isn’t worth reading.
9) Pretending To Forget Your Shared History: I had one interlocutor who would repost the exact same shallow arguments over and over again, or repeat claims that I had, in previous posts, challenged. That’s not to say that you can revisit your entire history of arguments every time you have a discussion with someone, but it makes you look dense when you ignore the fact that you’ve thoroughly explored a topic before. Don’t act like you can just assert something that is obviously a point of contention. Retain *some* memory of what was said and what was (perhaps) decided in previous arguments.
10) Not Realizing When You’ve Made an Empirical Claim: Some things can be known by logic alone, or even sheer introspection. But most claims about the world are empirical in nature. It’s possible that they are false, and that some piece of information from the world has a bearing on that claim. I’ve met a few people who are either so dense as to not realize when they are making an empirical claim, or they adopt a stance that obscures the empirical nature of the claim (presumably so they don’t have to confront contrary information).
11) Abruptly Leaving the Discussion: We’re all busy, and we have other things on our mind. But be gracious when someone has obliterated your argument. If someone points out a fatal logical flaw or an incontrovertible piece of evidence that decisively refutes your argument, acknowledge it and move on. It’s even possible that your conclusion is still right, just not for the reasons you presented. That’s fine. Acknowledge it. “I will stop using that argument, because it’s not a good argument.” It’s not that hard. I’m recalling a conversation about drug prohibition that invoked the bath-salt using face-eater, who it turns out never took bath salts. If you’re going to use an emotionally compelling example to bolster your argument, then you have to accept the flip-side of it when, oops, the example given *doesn’t* support your argument.
12) Moral/Personal/Emotional Trump Cards: These are the worst. If you can’t enter an argument without getting terribly emotional, even personal, then don’t. We all have disagreements about which government policies are harmful or helpful (on net). Don’t try to bully someone into shutting up because a particular policy they favor would hurt you personally. Your interests aren’t the only ones that matter. Good public policy ought to come from an impersonal, detached analysis of costs and benefits. The analyzer should pretend they don’t know whether they would be a net recipient or net payer for the policy in question. More often policy originates with passionate shouting mobs demanding “More stuff for me! We’re the loudest coalition, and we won’t be reasoned with!” This is how we get lots of incoherent populist government programs. Having a very personal stake in an outcome makes you *less* credible to comment on policy, not more. And *moral* trump cards are often incoherent. So you’re just going to claim the moral high-ground and be done with it? I don’t think so. That’s probably what we’re arguing about in the first place, so let’s at least have a conversation. By the way, a government program that has terrible practical consequences *is* immoral. If you insist on “Right must be done, and may the world burn,” then the world will burn. Wealth will be wasted, people will become poorer, and people will die. Come down from your high-horse for a moment, recast the argument in terms of tangible harms rather than moral presumptions, and try it once more.
13) Questioning the Motives/Interests/Identity of Your Interlocutor: This is the good ole’ ad hominem. Hopefully not much needs to be said about this one, but it does come up, and often. Questioning the funding source of a particular author or think tank is for some reason seen as an acceptable challenge to their argument. And pointing to a person’s membership to a given class (typically the oppressor class) is seen as a devastating critique. If you aren’t engaging with the substance of the person’s argument, don’t bother commenting. Authors and think tanks don’t just state their conclusions and say, “Trust me. I’m an expert.” They typically offer documents full of evidence, logical arguments, and references to sources. You don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. You can check yourself. It requires a bit of intellectual effort and an investment of time, but it pays off. Most bothersome about this habit: most authors don’t attach themselves to the highest-paying think-tank and adjust their views accordingly. Most authors actually start out with some kind of argument or worldview, and they find the think tank (or other institution) that will publish their ideas. Where do you expect literature to come from that questions, say, government spending on education or healthcare? There are people who oppose such spending (in general or to some particular degree), and who wish to research and write about it. Those scholars are naturally going to end up working for an institution sympathetic to their viewpoint. If someone writes and publishes an anti-government research paper or article, it’s no slam against the underlying argument that it happens to get published by the CATO Institute.
14) Talking Across Someone’s Argument: By this, I mean something like the following. Someone presents an argument leading to a conclusion. Rather than engaging with the argument, you present your own evidence for how the conclusion can’t possibly be correct. It’s okay to do this if someone’s argument is so long and convoluted that you don’t have time to read it. I certainly feel I have the right to object to the conclusions of some 600+ page tomes that I haven’t read. It’s possible that Piketty’s “Capital” would thoroughly convince me and answer all my objections if I simply took the time to sit down and read it. So I’ll admit to occasionally indulging #14 here. But if the argument as presented is concise enough, respond directly to it. Without doing that, you’re just shouting past each other.
15) The Spread: This is similar to 6, 7, and 8. Sometimes an interlocutor presents so many not-necessarily-connected arguments that, when someone actually does respond, he can always be confident that some piece of the argument wasn’t replied to. “But what about X?! With all you said, still X!” I’ve heard this debating tactic called “The Spread.” It is possible that there are so many good arguments for a conclusion that it’s worth listing all of them at once. But it’s generally bad etiquette on a comment thread.
16) Acting as if “It’s Just Obvious.”: Very similar to #4, Pure Snark. Sometimes people point out a single factoid or news story, then effectively drop the mic and walk off stage. It’s always good to add a *little* commentary as to the implications. I recall someone commenting with a single link and no actual commentary, responding to something I had posted. This was in response to a link with a considerable amount of commentary by myself (I typically leave a paragraph or two of my own thoughts). I don’t know if he thought the link was so devastating to my point that no commentary was necessary, or if he just wanted to share a contrary viewpoint without adding to the discussion. I responded to some of the content of in the link (which was actually linked to a very nice article), but still no actual discussion.
None of this is to say I never do these things, but these are the behaviors that bother me the most. I think productive threads get derailed by people with bad commenting hygiene. All of these are variations on a few very general themes: be polite, engage with the argument presented to you in good faith, presume good faith on the part of your interlocutor, don’t display anger too bluntly, think about what you are saying, etc. Some of these overlap with the classical “logical fallacies”, which I first learned about (formally anyway) in 10th grade speech class. I obviously won’t bother to list those, but they are worth referencing, too.
I probably go overboard in the “try to comment thoughtfully” department. That's not to say I succeed, just that I agonize obsessively over it. I write out every comment in Word, revise and re-write several times before posting, and feel paranoid that I’ve left out some important detail or failed to anticipate some criticism. I’d probably have more discussions, and thus more productive discussions, if I were slightly less careful and more succinct. But this process of revising and re-writing tends to pay off. I sometimes realize that I don’t believe what I originally intended to say. I sometimes anticipate a criticism that really is devastating to my argument. Far more often, I anticipate how my comment could be misconstrued or dismissed with clever-but-meaningless blather. A thoughtful comment that I had spent 15 minutes, perhaps an hour, agonizing over, is dismissed with an error-laden comment thumbed out carelessly on someone’s iPhone in under a minute. I still feel like I learn something from these exchanges. A bad commentator can be like a game of “Why? Boy”, where a child responds to every answer with another “Why?” You definitely learn the limits of your knowledge, and you learn to spell out every assumption and everything underlying your argument. An already thoughtful person can profit from this exercise. But it’s frustrating as hell and you are always left feeling like somebody is trolling you.