Does effective discourse exist on the internet?

Jack Carroll
Mesa Legend

For the last couple of years, I have had a habit of waking up, and before anything else, I look at my phone. Before my eyes even get a chance adjust to the brightness of my phone from the darkness of my room, I have Facebook or Reddit open, ready to see all of what happened to the world overnight. Then, after properly reading the articles, watching the videos, and taking in the information, I get my thumbs ready, and I dive into the comment section to take snarky digs at people who I don’t even know- people who could possibly not even be real.

At the end of the day, I have probably participated in dozens of arguments over multiple social media websites. It’s an addiction, almost, and I’m not even the only one guilty of this; look in any comment section (especially YouTube’s) and tell me it isn’t a nightmare of grammatical errors, political shilling, and heated complaints about people giving away “free gift cards”.  I guess the question I am wondering is: Why is it that I, and so many other people, continue (and in a lot of cases, enjoy) arguing on the internet so much? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? And does effective discourse exist on the internet? Is that even possible?

On the one hand, we have places like 4Chan, or the YouTube comment section, both notable for their primarily… excitable online communities. It’s typically a hotbed for racist or heinous statements mostly by people who think it’s funny, people who have nothing better to do, or people who legitimately think these sentiments are acceptable. The reason these places happen to be so hostile is because of the (in 4chan’s case, purposeful) lack of vigilant moderation, practically worthless content rules and restrictions, and a whole lot of dumb children. I know this because I myself was a dumb child, who frequented those websites in middle and high-school.

They appealed to me because of their lax regulations of their content. It felt freeing to me, who had lived with all the firewalls and restrictions of a school computer, or the family computer. They had stuff I had never thought I could see, and a significant amount of times, stuff I probably never desired to see in the first place, but I could see it if I wanted to.  I could see anything, post anything, say anything if I wanted to. But somewhere around 2015-16, it quickly devolved from the freewheeling and troublemaking, but mostly altruistic communities they were, into the hyper-politicized and legitimately hateful echo chambers they are today. On the other hand, you have websites like Reddit, the aforementioned website I go to to get into snark-offs. Although arguments can happen on this website, there are genuine attempts at civil discourse there too.

One of these attempts manifested itself into a subreddit (the website’s name for its various forums) named Change My View.  It was created by 17-year-old Kal Turnbull in 2013 with the purpose of giving people an ability to, well, change one another’s views with no fear of reprisal. They do their best to keep out judgemental comments or unhelpful contributions by using over 20 moderators who enforce the rules and delete the problematic posts. They also acknowledge that their efforts are a slow but steady endeavor in their information page; “Long-held, important opinions are like a cargo ship – slow to turn around.”

In an article he wrote for Scientific American, author Michael Shermer wrote that in order to have better civil discourse people should “ keep emotions out of the exchange” when confronted with a particularly unchanging opinion. “Discuss, don’t attack” is another step where you avoid making snappy comebacks (no matter how satisfying it may feel when you finally lay down that good one you’ve been saving).  In my opinion, the most important part of having better civil discourse Shermer brought up is “acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold [a certain] opinion.” This is crucial because without understanding the ideas of the person you’re conversing with, you might as well be talking to a boulder that miraculously learned how to type.

When it comes to internet discussions, there’s gonna be excitement. It still is a novel concept to a lot of us that we can have these conversations online, and a lot of us don’t know how to effectively do it. It can be hard, even impossible-feeling to put yourself in such a vulnerable position without having snide remarks at the ready, in case you have a viewpoint challenged. Ultimately, it’s gonna be an uphill battle to get the internet on the right side of the effective discourse debate. But it can be done if people put their focus into it.

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These are archived stories from Mesa Legend editions before Fall 2018. See article for corresponding author.

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