I got involved in some discussions over at Objectivism Online this week, something I try not to do. Getting mired in a back and forth argument online always takes a great deal of time. And I find it nerve wracking to check a site every few minutes to see if my antagonist (that fool!) has responded to my latest post.
The longer the arguments go, the more absurd they get to me. They devolve into these talmudic discussions of exactly what a sentence meant and how it was misinterpreted and what the grammar should have been and on and on until I forget what the original point was. It's maddening.
There has been some discussion this year as to the value of online forums. Someone said a forum is a poor place to learn Objectivism. It certainly is! As they say, ACPOTI, and you can read everything on a forum from sheer genius to sheer stupidity.
What values have I gained from participating in forums going back to the usenet in 1996? First, learning from my mistakes in arguments. If a mistake can be made, I make it. I get slapped around for it and think, "That was no fun -- don't do that again." There's a Russian play called He Who Gets Slapped. My life story.
For instance, when I first entered into arguments on the internet, I got emotional and insulted my opponents. I got slapped around for ad hominem and thought, "That was no fun -- don't do that again."
A second value in forums, aside from being a place to get slapped: they're a place to find out what other people think about the latest event or controversy. As you get to know people online, you think, "I wonder what Software Nerd has to say about this?"
The worst thing about forums, or the internet in general, is flame wars. Posts are written in the heat of the moment, when people are pissed off, and they express their anger. In writing. That is there to stay on the internet. Until the end of time.
When Isaac Asimov got an angry, hateful letter in the mail, he would type out his angry reply. Then he would set the letter aside and go to sleep. The next day, he would toss the letter in the trash. He had gotten the anger out of his system by writing his reply; he saw no reason to mail it to his antagonist.
Those were the days when people typed letters on paper, mailed them through the postal service and didn't expect a reply for weeks. It seems like something out of a Dickens novel now.
On the internet, it's hard to take time to sit back and reflect. If someone on a forum disagrees with you, you want to correct this injustice, and do it now! It all happens "in real time" at the speed of electrons.
It's all new. We are the pioneers of the internet. We're discovering how it works. We're making mistakes and getting slapped around for them. We're developing new methods of communicating and new modes of etiquette. We're developing practices like Isaac Asimov's that safeguard us from writing something we might regret. One thing forums have learned is that they need to be moderated with a heavy hand.
We are the pioneers of the internet -- good thing to remember.