This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things
"This is why we can't have nice things" is a well-established internet meme. Over time it has been over used and has become a bit of a cliché. Yet under certain conditions it can still be utilised in a pertinent fashion to make a salient point. Recently, something somewhat innocuous and trivial occurred that caused me to recollect this saying. The incident itself is not of any major importance but it resulted in me realising that this sort of thing happens more and more often these days. Allow me to explain myself. I like many of you frequent a few forums and subreddits. On one particular site, a thread was derailed by someone who decided to just simply name call. Nothing unusual there I hear you say. But for me personally, it was one time too many. Name calling serves no purpose in an adult debate, so I decided to point this out. Eventually, the problem post was removed as there were others that thought that such behaviour was crass. However, the person in question who posted the remark, would not concede the point in any way shape or form. They either did not want to or what was more likely, were totally incapable of comprehending their own transgression.
Whether they were trolling, or utterly convinced of the certainty of their position remains unknown. As they were only sanctioned and not banned, they will no doubt continue to pursue their "unique style" of social interaction. I am left considering whether I wish to continue to participate in such an environment. Hence my recourse to the titular meme, because this always seems to be the pattern. It appears that any medium that is designed for social interaction is eventually usurped by the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the problem elements who often cause these problems are sufficiently savvy to keep within the rules (although they are often a moderator’s nightmare), thus remaining relatively unassailable.
Now I'm sure we've all experienced this sort of behaviour in some shape or form, during our excursions online. It’s quite common place. Here are a few examples of the usual sort of tactics that are used to derail or hijack any conversation:
- Straw man and Ad hominen arguments. Pretty much the oldest two tricks in the book. Argue against something that wasn't said or attack the person to discredit their opinions or position.
- Grammar Nazis. If you can't win an argument then why not criticise someone's spelling. A classic act of misdirection.
- The Wall of Text. This is often done by minutely dissecting a previous post and is a tool designed to wear an opponent down. If the wall of text is not replied to in kind, a victory is claim by default.
- "Freedom of speech". This nebulous ideological concept (which so often erroneously interpreted) is the "get out of jail card" of choice for many online malcontents. Allegedly it affords people the right to be racist, sexist, and pretty much any other sort of "ist" that you can name. Sometimes it is seen as a justification to simply be bellicose and ill mannered, affording the individual the option to abdicate from normal social conventions.
For those who would like to explore further examples of these esoteric arts, try the following links. How to Win Online Arguments and The Subtle Art of Trolling. Also checkout Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement. It seems that there is little scope for a civilised debate and social interaction anywhere on the internet these days. In researching this post, I picked three random articles that were linked on Twitter and read their respective comments section. All descended into chaos within a short period of time. Furthermore, this seems to be the standard mode of debate in all walks of life these days. TV shows and news channels seem to favour it, as does the press. Politics has fully embraced the Punch and Judy approach to public discourse. It no longer seems to be about having an intelligent debate. Now it's simply about shouting someone down, not blinking while lying through your teeth and revelling in the perceived glory of your victory. All of which is far easier than having a proper discussion based around critical thinking and decorum, because that obviously takes too much effort and more importantly skill.
So, what do people such as you and I do about this problem? Well it would appear the common solution is to simply withdraw. Thus, we see forums and websites become havens for trolls and gain the label "toxic". Just go and look at the small cadre of malcontents on the LBC website. It’s a sad reality of modern life that regular people frequently have to manage their affairs around avoiding problems and conflict, rather than the problems and troublemakers being dealt with. Yet withdrawing is ultimately counterproductive. So what can we do. Well rather than wade in and make a potential slanging match worse, why not simply use the facilities that are in place? Use the moderation procedures that are available to you. If you are unhappy with the way a debate is being conducted, then flag it for moderation and give cogent and succinct reasons as to why you have done so. Encourage other users to do so. However, this doesn’t guarantee results. Moderation comes with a cost attached and thus often gets neglected. If that’s the case, then escalate matter further up the chain of command. Email the owners, or domain holders. Complain publicly via Twitter. Negative publicity can often attract attention.
If you find yourself in a situation where you write or provide a forum or subreddit, then it is essential to have a clear policy with regard to comments and interaction. I take a fairly liberal approach to policing comments on Contains Moderate Peril and often allow the crass and trolling posts to remain, as their stupidity is often self-evident. Occasionally I will delete a comment if it is simply of no value. As it is my site I reserve the right to determine exactly what the definition of "value" is. I would again encourage others to do the same regardless of what platform they are maintaining. Decide your rules, be clear about them and enforce them rigorously. You are not obliged to have an "off topic" channel on your Discord server if you don’t want one. If you do, then enforce an adherence to standards of behaviour that are commonly held.
It is very difficult to counter the negative effects that alleged internet anonymity generates. Broadly speaking freedom means we have to endure a degree of unpalatable behaviour and that it is the price that we pay for liberty. However, I see no reason not to attempt to re-educate those who troll and rile. We should more often use the existing procedures to sanction problem individuals and re-iterate the fact that there are consequences to certain actions. In some respects, it is similar to the recent debate had in the UK regarding regulation of the press. It was argued that there are sufficient rules in place at present that can deal with transgressions without the need for further legislation. The current rules just need to be enforced. The same is applicable to Twitter. Prosecute those that breech the current laws with regard to threat and libel. As for general bad behaviour, the responsibility lies with you and I to state are displeasure.
I am very interested at present with the way that some games developers are dealing with this problem. Community decisions on a troll’s punishment, temporary exile of problems players to specific servers and other sanctions do seem to have an impact. It would seem attempted rehabilitation is a more beneficial approach to simply banning. Perhaps this is the future and a way to stop the spread of the rot. Hopefully these methods can be brought to bear on other mediums and platforms. The first step on this road is for regular folk to remain robust, express their displeasure and not to withdraw. I know that’s hard and a big ask. But the only truly effective way to counter bad ideas and ideologies is to tackle them head on. No-platforming simply doesn’t work. Stupidity should be exposed and ridiculed. You don’t have to be like Peter Tatchell and fight every battle. But calling someone out who says something racist or such like, helps reinforce the notion that some behaviour in not acceptable. It’s the weight of all the smaller battles that often eventually tip the scales.
But it takes time for things to change. It’s not going to happen overnight. Technology, human behaviour, and ethics have not kept in step with each other. The law is also lagging behid in some areas. However, if we're persistant, then we will be able to bring about change. During the seventies, there started i the UK, a long campaign against drinking and driving. By the mid-nineties the message finally got traction and the culture begin to shift accordingly. I believe if we take a similar long-term approach with social media can "have nice things" eventually. It may not ever be perfect but hopefully it can be better than it is now. Because the alternative simply doesn’t bear thinking about. Therein lies madness.