|Can't we all just get along?|
So great. But what IS conversation? If you set aside commercial transactions and the day-to-day tasks that require some sort of verbal communication, leaving those conversations we choose to have because we WANT to, what you get is primarily argument. When we argue about politics and religion, it can be heated, uncomfortable, overall an unpleasant personal experience. But everything else...
We are interested in the things we are interested in. Obviously, I have a strong interest in tautologies. As a result, many of the conversations we choose to have are related to these topics of mutual interest. Alongside that, we humans are a competitive lot. We’ve never found an activity we couldn’t turn into a contest. From “race ya to the red car” to “Iron Chef”, we want to compete on every level, which seems to be related on one level or another to our universal belief that we are the best, the number one expert, the top performer, the unquestioned font of wisdom and the final arbiter of the answers to the Big Questions™.
Over the millennia, this has lead to a favored kind of conversational argument, a sort of friendly banter characterized by a mocking tone and a string of insults. You might tell me you think Lincecum’s problems are physical, that 5.56mm is the best Intermediate Cartridge in the world, that a 280Z can outperform an RX-7 or there’s something valuable in String Theory research, and I will tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot. Now, when we’re sitting in brewpub having this conversation, this otherwise incredibly rude response will go virtually unnoticed, if not unchallenged. But the tone will be recognized for its intention, and other participants in the conversation will often chuckle, awaiting the inevitable crude response. No one gets angry or hurt feelings, both because this is a longstanding form of conversation, and because of the other cues available to evaluate the intentions of the speaker.
Which brings us to the Internet. Many of us today have more conversations on the series of tubes than we have in the real world, and whether we are denizens of Facebook, the blogosphere, aggregation sites or the thousands of comment threads on everything from CNN to Mother Jones to YouTube to IMFDB, we are satisfying our social need for conversation, for friendly, competitive argument with plain text, a few HTML tags and those ubiquitous emoticons.
It is oddly counterintuitive, but seemingly broadly true, that feelings are much more sensitive, and outrage and anger much closer to the surface on the Internet than face to face. Perhaps it has to do with those other visual and auditory clues to motive and intent, but I don’t think that’s it. Because this limitation to the medium of purely written communication has been recognized forever, and even going back to Usenet and IRC there have been attempts to mitigate its problematic nature. But really, if you tell me that Belinda Carlisle was hotter than Joan Jett or that Angelina Jolie was a better gun handler than Milla Jovovich in a face-to-face conversation and I tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot, we’ll laugh and move on. But if we’re having that conversation on the Internet, and I tell you you’re a fuckin’ idiot LOL half the time you’re STILL going to get angry, and instead of our enjoyable argument continuing, the whole thing goes off the rails.
Sadly, I don’t have a real solution to propose at this point. People should have normalized their Internet based interactions at this point, understanding when they’re talking to friends or trolls, and adjusting their expectations accordingly. But the fact that they haven’t done so indicates to me that there is, at some fundamental level, a difference in how we perceive our conversations. So Internet threads that started as these kinds of enjoyable conversations often break down into acrimony and anger, with the participants ultimately finding the whole process unsatisfactory, and yet after insincere apologies are demanded and accepted, the whole process starts again. It seems obvious we are striving for something comfortably parallel to that experience in the brewpub, but don’t know how to get there.