The first time I got an Internet connection I was exposed to online forums, and with that I was exposed to flame wars.
For the uninitiated, a flame war is when a simple discussion degenerates to a heated argument at the lowest levels of ad hominem attacks and defending one’s pride.
Sometimes it’s tempting to jump in and correct someone who is ill-informed about something. But I’ve learned that unless you know for sure that you are correct (this should be rare) and you are posting this where it will be well-received, it’s best not to say anything.
In fact, you should always assume it’s best not to say anything.
It doesn’t make a difference.
Think about it: Why do you argue with people online?
Why does anyone spend their time investing so much emotional energy over words on a screen?
Unless you’re getting something substantial out of it, the only reasons I can think of are:
- To feel right or validated
- To dominate others
- To feel like you’re making a difference
To this day I am still occasionally guilty of the third one. I used to believe that being around in comments on pages, blogs and forums from time to time leaving “little gems of wisdom and useful information” would help someone, sometimes where I would spend hours writing long posts on a given subject (which helped hone my writing skills as a good side effect) as an anonymous user.
However, I quickly learned that people who really seek help will help themselves as I’ve learned from running a few websites on those topics. The visibility of your own words on your own website is more far-reaching than any forum or YouTube comment.
Here’s an old maxim from the Bible, Matthew 7:6, that captures this sentiment perfectly:
Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
Unless I know for sure that someone else wants to know what I know and they have asked me, I refrain from saying or doing anything.
Most online discussions are power fantasies and ego-masturbation
Unless you are in a specialty forum on a given subject where the people posting are truly masters of their craft or otherwise just know what they’re talking about, you’re only going to find cliques of people who gather around a forum simply because they want to belong there and someone wants to be top dog. Everyone strokes each others’ egos: a veritable circle jerk.
You’ll see this more on gaming fan and media discussion forums simply because there is more focus on consuming content than creating something — go figure.
People who can only consume media and follow others can get a sort of false pride or a narcissistic sort of high that comes with being the “top person” on an internet forum.
If you’ve been around the net for a while, you’ll know the sort of overzealous moderator who take their “powers” a little too seriously, not unlike the Stanford prison experiment where volunteers sorted into “prisoner” and “guard” roles began to take those roles to heart.
If you offend their ego circle-jerks, or disrupt the harmony of their echo chamber, you’re going to be met with a lot of negative recoil and stubborn resistance. It’s human nature, and it’s not going to change through your efforts, only an individual’s choice and willpower.
The truth is, it’s easy to win an argument or to appear right. What’s difficult is to admit you know nothing and to stop keeping up appearances.
It saves you time and energy
If you’re introverted, you’re already running on limited energy. Therefore you should work smarter, not harder.
As mentioned, I would spend up to an hour correcting a post that I thought would help someone see things differently. It helped me hone my writing, and served as a sort of note-taking on what I’ve studied at times, but beyond that it’s become a huge waste of mental and emotional energy.
Sometimes I’d be reading an article or watching a video and see someone say something so stupid in the comments that I couldn’t help but respond. Then next thing I know I’ve wasted a few minutes of my time that I can’t get back all for the vague sense that I did something right.
Now whenever I catch myself writing something in response to something stupid, I delete it and continue on my way. Someone else’s stupidity is not your responsibility, and your energies are best directed toward something more constructive.
It’s important to always remember that many people are rooted in their ways and their opinions.
They are seldom going to find anything that changes their outlook on something, and they’re only going to keep looking for more of the same. If they see anything different from their binary worldview, it’s going to result in mental cricket sounds at best (since they haven’t conditioned a kneejerk response to it yet), and loathing and wrath at worst.
There’s no point wasting your time spewing hot air or caps locked keyboard clicks at others if you’re not getting something substantial from it, you should only spend it on yourself as only you know whether you can gain something from an experience.
My rules for discussing anything online (or offline)
If you’re like me, you don’t want to avoid all discussions, but you want to avoid the ones that are useless. Here are four rules you may want to take into account:
- Are all parties familiar with the subject matter at hand?
- Is anyone going to take anything away from this discussion? (most important IMHO)
- Is someone’s ego going to get hurt?
- Is someone’s ego going to be overinflated?
Rule 1 is because if someone is not familiar with the topic, but decides to opine on it, their perspective is largely useless. People talk because they want to be heard, not necessarily because they want to share knowledge.
Rule 2 is because some people do not want to listen if someone else actually knows the subject matter and has a valid perspective. It’s also because you can be preaching to the choir and nobody will learn anything new.
Rule 3 is because the people who want to opine and be heard but are unable to listen are all ego. There’s no room in a useful conversation for someone insecure who only wants validation and a chance to show off what little they know.
Rule 4 is because some people have a tendency to get into an “I am so smart and knowledgeable” mode in these sorts of conversations. Pseudointellectualism.
Though the latter two rules are more for social niceties, if you can’t meet all of the above criteria, it’s best to cease participating or kill the discussion where it stands.
If the above are violated too frequently with certain people, you may consider not spending too much time with them or bringing up those topics of conversation as they can be a huge drain.
Some corollaries to the above rules would be the following:
- Every participant in the conversation is informed on the subject
- Every participant wants to learn something new and to listen to each other
- Every participant understands their perspective may be challenged
- Every participant understands that for as much as they already know, there may still be much to learn
Obviously these are ideal and not every discussion is going to meet these criteria. None of these are to dissuade you from every little conversation, but it’s best not to show your true power level unless everyone fulfills these conditions.
Most arguments online and in meatspace should be avoided. Arguments tend to have the underlying motive of ego rather than to share knowledge and perspectives. Unless you’re taking it to your own blog, you should spend that time learning, exploring, creating something or improving yourself.
Also: None of this is to discourage you from a good discussion or debate among understanding friends; rather, it’s to avoid the hundreds of awful ones you’ll witness in your lifetime, where ill-informed egos clash to everyone’s annoyance. Be discerning and you’ll get exactly what you want.
On a tangent, you may be interested in reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s words on this subject. Robert at 30 Days to X has covered a few gems from Schopenhauer’s works succinctly in this post.