I’ve been mulling over writing a post that analyzes the rhetorical devices used by online trolls to transform civilized discussions into conflagrations but have decided it makes more sense to talk about a tool that will keep everyone’s blood pressure under control. And that’s evaluating information based on the source from whence it comes.
I noticed a few weeks ago, after reading an extremely well-researched indictment of some bad behavior in a professional community to which I belong, that the discussions of first-hand information tend to stay relatively civilized.
When people report on what they’ve witnessed, first hand, or what they’ve discovered through systematic research, the comments tend to be similarly first hand. Even if the comment is “I completely disagree with you” or “Well, that wasn’t what happened when I lit a cigarette and leaned over a sparking engine.” Whether the tone is supportive or dismissive, it still comes across as genuine and informative.
It’s when people post long rants on blogs, on Facebook, or in community discussions about what they think about someone they’ve never met who did something at an event they didn’t attend to someone who is a friend of a friend — that’s when the comments tend to heat up. And I think that’s in large part because when we read that sort of post or comment we are seized by a subliminal sense that this person has no idea what they are talking about. It’s like sensing wide open spaces where pictures, sounds, and reality ought to be. And then, of course, there’s your own urge, which I’m sure is a deep-rooted instinct, to leap in and fill that wide open space with your own comments. Which may, sadly, be just as vaporous as the original post.
I’ve decided to start a one-person campaign to comment, positively and supportively, on posts that are based on first-hand experience. I plan to do this even in instances where I don’t think that the generalizations the person is making based on their one or two data points are justified. My rationale for giving support? They’re bringing themselves to the discussion, and that’s a good thing.
And, for my own sanity, I’m going to ignore posts that say “I heard that he said that she said that the-person-she’s-not-going-to-name did blah, blah, rant, rant, and rantforth.” In fact, if I see a series of these from one person, I’m going to quietly mute that person. That’s because, whatever their intentions, they aren’t adding much to the conversation. They’re just amplifying it and adding some unpleasant noise while they’re about it.
Note that the two exceptions my the plan are people (such as journalists) who have done actual reporting on the situation (“I called the business owner, and she told me X, Y, Z”) and people who did research on it (“I counted the number of reports of a particular occurrence during the past three years, and here are the numbers I came up with.”) They may have interviewed the wrong person, to your view, or they may have counted the wrong things, but they are adding actual information to the discussion. Information that any commenter can cite in their reply. “You should have calculated the mean rather than the median” is so much more helpful than “You and your cowardly cabal are obviously the scum of the earth.”
I invite you to take a look at the blogs you follow, or at your Facebook timeline, and note who’s contributing genuine, new, first-hand information to the world and who’s just trying to get people to join an angry mob.