Friday, February 26, 2010

Internet Landmines

The only time I can write a post like this is when I'm not quietly mad at anyone. Otherwise, it ends up being a passive aggressive snipe at something bugging me. Thankfully, I'm still in a pretty good mood post dreamation, and a disagreement I had with the inestimable Rob Bohl on couldn't really be elaborated on twitter. And as we all no "To long for twitter" is code for "Blogfodder" I ended up answering that issue, and throwing in a few more tidbits of things to remember while navigating the Internet.

Unintended Costs of Polite Anonymity
It is not unreasonable to want to call out a bad behavior without going so far as to actually name the bad actor. It's a restrained form of shaming, and the assumption si that, by speaking publically, you are communicating to the bad actor "I saw what you did, this is what I think about it, but I'm giving you a chance to save face by not calling you out by name." This is quite civilized, but it has a non-obvious toxic impact.

The problem is this: a lot of polite people who are listening are intensely aware of how easy it is to accidentally engage in bad behaviors. You might be tired or distracted or stressed and as a result end up being an ass without ever realizing you're doing it. When they hear a blanket statement, they immediately seize up and try to figure out what they might have done, since this could easily be about them. This is amazingly stressful, and eventually it leads to very nice people not giving a shit because it is the only way to stay sane.

Plus, as a bonus, if the bad actor thought their behavior was ok, they may never get the message. That's kind of lose-lose.

Suggestion: If you want to call someone out without naming them, include enough corroborating detail to keep people from wondering if it is them.

"Obvious" is a Red Flag

You are never more at risk of sounding like an asshole than when you are discussing something obvious. Once we accept something as obvious it permeates our thought and speech in ways that we are not always aware of. This is invisible to our friends who also consider it obvious because it creates no discrepancies in their view. But when talking with someone who does not see this thing as obvious, these are obvious red flags, and they're really off putting. On even the nicest, most off-putting of folks, this behavior can come off as zealotry.

That may sound too strong, but it comes down to this: Once we consider something obvious, we stop bothering to discuss it. Usually it's because we don't see a need to do so, but sometimes it's a concious choice because we've grown tired of "that discussion". I'm sympathetic to this, but to an outside observer, all positions that can't be discussed look the same. Your perfectly reasonable position gets put in the same bucket as flat earthers and holocaust deniers because your decision not to justify it is indistinguishable from your being unable to justify it.

This is far from insurmountable. Once such a disconnect is identified, it's easy to address. You just unpack your argument, and discuss the point. No problem. Except, of course, because this thing is obvious, then clearly this other guy is a TOTAL IDIOT for not seeing it, and it would be best to treat him like such.

Or, perhaps not.

Suggestion: I'm not saying to go back to core assumptions every time you talk with someone. That would be barbaric. We all know how to discuss things rationally with people we disagree with, if we can bother to use those tools. Just keep them in mind if you find yourself thinking that the person you're talking to is missing something obvious. If you go to the tools, you might be surprised to discover who is actually missing something.

Disagreement is not Disrespect

The world is full of awesome people I think are wrong. Sometimes really wrong.

This does not make them less awesome.

It just means I disagree with them.

Seriously, if you can't get your head around this one, I am not sure you should be allowed on the internet.[1]

The Support or Opposition of Fools is No Useful Metric

If you progress in any field of knowledge, you will discover a really common pattern, as differing levels of understanding and sophistication express themselves in the same fashion. Think about any book that you were told was great in high school, but you hated, but you really dug in college, but now think is tripe. Your current viewpoint is a nuanced, rich on built on experience and understanding, but in the abstract it's the same opinion as a snotty 14 year old. Obviously, our currently held opinion is always the best[2], but without the ability to distinguish it from a similar opinion held for different reasons, we find ourselves grouped with EVERYONE who holds our opinion.

This is not limited to knowledge - it extends to opinions as well. If I am counting votes, I cannot distinguish between the 20 year business veteran who voted for John McCain because he believed his economic policies would be the right solution for the country and the guy who doesn't want a black man in office.

This sort of difference is usually easily sorted out one on one, but on the internet, we have such a tiny lens that it can be impossible to make these distinctions between people, especially in places like forums. If 100 people bash your product is it equally likely they were too stupid to understand it as it is you were too stupid to explain it. Of course, if 100 people praise it, it's equally likely they're deluded.

Suggestion: You cannot take numbers seriously on the internet. Concentrate on individuals and discussions. It is too easy to make yourself crazy looking at tiny slivers of data that people throw, spit or otherwise excrete up online and try to make a pattern out of it. The monkey brain DEMANDS a pattern. But you need to give it a banana and tell it to shut up. You can get a lot out of conversations, but almost nothing out of noise.

Jargon is a Social Tool
Jargon does 2 things.
  1. It helps a group communicate among itself by providing a shorthand for ideas the group values.
  2. It provides a method for self-identification within a group while simultaneously excluding outsiders.

This means that the value of #1 needs to be balanced against the general shittiness of #2. The problem, of course, is that the group tends to overvalue #1 and underestimate #2 and most outsiders are insensitive to #1 but highly sensitive to #2.

I cannot think of a single group that does not fall into this trap, so I can't just say "don't do it." All I can really suggest is thinking about it a little bit more, from both sides. It is most dangerous when unacknowledged.

Corollary: If you're going to use jargon, at least be honest about it. Jargon that waffles or changes definition at convenience is basically a big red flashing light indicating that its purpose is purely social.

1 -And if your instinctive response was "but what if they're really wrong, like, morally wrong, like, want to kill puppies or something? What then mister smart guy?" then my answer for your has three parts.
  1. We are not 8. We know the difference.
  2. If you really like and respect puppy killers, I don't think the problem is with them
  3. You're a douche.
2 - Obviously!


  1. Hey, Rob. Thanks for the kind words up top. I'm considering your point of view.

    My point was just to say: it's better to support someone who's been wronged by pimping his or her stuff sincerely to people you think would like it than it is to engage in stupid internet flamewars.

  2. @Rob, Oh, absolutely, but I was responding to the twitter, not the action, (which seems the right idea).

  3. Hey Rob Donoghue! Many times I disagree with you but this time I do not.

    PS: You continue to be awesome.

  4. Jargon has no benefit in any discussion. It is most often simply a case of sheer linguistic laziness and a detriment to any attempt at clear communication and should be avoided at all costs.

    Of course, my opinion is formed from the difficulty of having worked in a cross-disciplinary field (physics, computing, engineering, and medicine), each with it's own separate (and often overlapping jargon [that is the same words have a different meaning in each field]).

    So I do say "don't do it!"

  5. If by 'jargon' you mean 'the latest meme going around', then I understand you. For an example in the realm of politics, there are such doozies as 'Palin is a moron' (which surfaced one day, and the next day EVERYBODY knew it was true, and the ones who disagreed were also deemed to be morons) and 'If you didn't vote for Obama, this is because you're a racist who didn't want a black man in the White House'. I have heard these gems spit out by people I ordinarily consider quite intelligent, independent thinkers who should know better, but (as far as I can see) groupthink or the easy one-liner or a desire to receive approbation from a group of friends or like-thinkers has taken over their monkey brain briefly, and nary a banana in sight.

    Or, as Motleypolitico@Livejournal says, reasonable people can reasonably be expected to disagree. But it's hard to do anything but agree or disagree with blanket, broad-brush statements like the above.

    If you mean some other jargon, I think you'll have to provide more examples. My only other experience with 'jargon' lay, 20 years ago, in several assorted church-related groups. Knowing the 'in phrases' made you belong. Not knowing them made you an outsider. I know now it was merely a tribe/clan thing and humans always do that, but I didn't know that then.

  6. Yes, but Sarah Palin IS a moron, so that's not so much jargon as an observation of a trainwreck.

  7. By 'jargon', I expect that Rob means specialised vocabulary used by particular groups.

    For tabletop gaming, '3d6' is an example of jargon, as are 'GM', 'system', and 'character sheet' - or, for that matter, 'character'. Little things that we use to avoid having to forever say 'roll three six sided dice and add up the numbers' or 'the piece of paper where you write down things about your pretend person'.

    That's all before we get to things like the GNS model, or task resolution, or microgames, or GM fiat, which also communicate concepts but are rather less accessible to others.

    In practice, I think, if you're not prepared to explain what your jargon means then you're mostly just trying to exclude people.

  8. I remember the first time I saw the word 'chargen' - I had no idea what it was. I thought it might be an archaic spelling of 'charged'. Yes, I had to get somebody to explain it to me, and it took quite a long time before it became a "real word" in my internalized lexicon.

    I see Rob, Cam and Fred use abbreviations in their tweets that I cannot begin to decipher (like 4e and DA). And that's okay, since I know they're discussing SOME RPG or other (I did figure out Dragon Age. Haven't figured out 4e yet). As a non-gamer, I don't *expect* to know which ones they mean, much less expect that they should waste precious characters in a 140-character tweet, spelling it all out. They know what they're talking about.

    It does leave me none the wiser, all the same. So I understand what you mean, Craig.


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