8 Things Arguing on the Internet Taught Me About People

This article first appeared as a Chick on the Draw column Dec 5, 2014 at Luna Station Quarterly

For the past two years, between watching cartoons and doing other crazy crap, I’ve helped moderate an online support group forum for survivors of family trauma. In that time the community has grown from fewer than a hundred members to tens of thousands. I no longer do the heavy lifting of moderation duties, but I still pinch-hit.

It’s been a hell of an education.

1. On the Internet, humans are meeting artificial intelligence halfway.

As a species, we set the stage for AI when we started writing letters.

Considering that text-based communication strips away vocal inflection, facial expression, and body language–what had been for a million years our only communication mechanisms at all–it’s a miracle we can get across any idea. Considering any online forum throws together total strangers–who have complete access to their own hurt feelings and no access to anyone else’s until they exercise heroic imagination–it’s a miracle anyone can get along.

Those who can get along are in a much better position to make sense of our eventual digital overlords.

2. If you find yourself in disagreement with someone, and you sincerely want to figure out the solution, prove it by starting with a good-faith restatement of their case (Rogerian-style negotiation.)

I’ve seen nothing soothe bruised feelings like this approach, e.g. “I hear that you think X, and you want Y.” Restating the other person’s position before describing my own has transformed me from being a “power-tripping fascist” to a reasonable human being in no more than three exchanges.

In his 1951 paper, “Communication: Its Blocking and its Facilitation,” [therapist Carl Rogers] proposes that the empathy and feedback model could be used to facilitate communication in emotion-laden situations outside the therapeutic relationship, such as political or labor negotiations. His formula is simple: “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.” In later articles he details Rogerian-style negotiation sessions that have produced astonishing results, including the Camp David negotiations conducted by Jimmy Carter, a conference involving health care providers and impoverished and embittered health care consumers, and even opposing sides in Northern Ireland (Rogers and Ryback 1984).

Rogerian Rhetoric: An Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric, Douglas Brent, University of Calgary

I heard about this approach being used at a Bay Area tech conference debate, I think, and boy howdy does it work.

3. Contrapositively, deliberately mischaracterizing someone’s position is a great way to piss them off

e.g. “Oh, I get it. You’re just doing this because X.” More than name-calling, abusive language, or threats of violence, deliberately mischaracterizing someone’s position is the single most effective way to make someone fly into a rage. So 1) please don’t do this and 2) if someone does it to you, beware it is sanity Kryptonite.

4. The best way to tell a normie from a troll is to push on them a little.

I’ve seen malicious-looking posts from users who turned out to wish help. I’ve seen helpful-looking posts form users who turned out to wish harm. I’ve seen posts with absolutely undistinguishable intent. Fortunately all a mod has to do is say, “We don’t do that here,” and intent readily identifies itself: normies recant and trolls explode. About one in ten will be a normie who is outraged by being pushed on. That’s where lesson #2 applies.

5. Like a defense attorney, a mod most defend every poster.

      • A) The person who posts is more vulnerable than the person who comments. By standing up and speaking, a poster makes themself a target.Commenters can dogpile. Posters can’t. Thus as a mod I always side more with a poster than a commenter, occasionally to a commenter’s outrage. In these cases, lesson #2 works a treat.
      • B) It does more harm for an innocent individual to be falsely accused than for a guilty individual to walk free.It is vital that we take every poster seriously. If we let the community dismiss/belittle/shout down one person expressing–among other things–thoughts of suicide, then others with thoughts of suicide will be less likely to express them. That insecurity is exactly what keeps suffering people silent, and exactly what the community cannot abide.


Yes, this means you’ll see mods supporting and failing to remove content you despise. But the flip-side is that, when someone questions your post, the mods will defend it, too.

Yes, this means no matter how many people decide a poster is faking, exaggerating, or catfishing, we let the poster keep posting. There is a solution for catfish, and it has nothing to do with us mods:

6. Healthy boundaries work in all cases.

If you exercise loving detachment, it doesn’t matter whether you believe what a person is saying or not.

If a stranger says they need money, healthy boundaries will keep you from sending money–or permit you to send money only if you’re completely prepared to see no advantage from it.

Now’s a good time to reiterate how highly I recommend Codependent No More.

7. Giving orders is anti-social.

Even if you’re 100% sure what someone should do to solve all their problems, giving them an order (“leave him,” “get a job,” “you should stop calling her”) is not going to go over well.

I recommend giving life advice the same way one gives a fiction critique:

[N]o should; use “I” statements; phrase things in the context of what worked for you or not, without assuming the stance of every reader; talk about the story, not the author; don’t refer to other authors as any kind of example.

Denver Fiction Writers pretty damn good fiction critique how-to

8. I am pretty OK with being called a power-tripping fascist.

It helps to have other power-tripping fascists around to check in with.