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Raphael Habereder
Raphael Habereder

Posted on • Updated on

A rant about discussion culture on the internet

Today was the first time I found a comment of mine flagged as "not constructive by the community".
This irked me a little bit, since I see myself as rather inclusive, yet strong-minded and fair.

Don't worry, this post will go a little bit deeper into the topic, just bear with me for a second.

Now I'm quite sure a user has no way to "negatively impact" someone else on here, except for submitting a hard report.

So here is the question, where does this come from?
It says it right there on the tin, "by the community", even if there is no voting system on comments.

So it must have been a report, right? Let's follow this chain a little deeper.

If you want to submit a report, you'll get a handful of categories to describe the issue:

  • Rude or vulgar
  • Harassment or hate speech
  • Spam or copyright issue
  • Inappropriate listings message/category
  • Other

This seems like a solid selection, except for "rude or vulgar" and the obvious "other".
Rude is an attribute that is solely subjective to the receiver.
Speaking from experience, being a typical franconian german, being direct without any sugarcoating is more often than not perceived by people as being rude.

Personally, I think it's quite flattering if someone tells me straight how it is. If you don't like something, say it. Beating around the bush gives leeway to misinterpretation. Misinterpretation again escalates situations even further.

So this, in my humble opinion, is a problem.

The Other category seems to be just another catchall for We are not sure where it fits, but want to reserve judgement, which is perfectly fine.

That out of the way, let's get into the topic of the title.

I've been on DEV for a bit over 3 years now, and most of the time I've been quiet.
I read a lot of controversial topics on here, especially when the US launches yet another political outrage party. Let's be honest, something that happens in the US is found here or on other social media platforms shortly after. The US is just that much of a powerhouse in global communication.

What I have noticed is, the discussions here, and the rest of the internet, are becoming more and more of an echo-chamber, rather than actual discussions.
The level on DEV is still far above other platforms, let's be real for a second, but the discussion culture of DEV is slowly getting there.

I read the code of conduct, and with most parts I agree. It's solidly written, even though I am quite sure back in 2017 it was more compact than it is today.
The trouble I have is, I can't find a way to "engage someone" in a debate with what the COC deems as "safe".

Two points strike me as particularly deadly for discussion culture:

Examples of unacceptable behavior by participants include:

  • Dismissing or attacking inclusion-oriented requests

A discussion is just that. You discuss points and if you argue against a differing view point, it is, by design, an attack on someones opinion. This, in no way, means you should actually insult someone. But an objective, solid argument, or let's go with the times and pardon my language, you call someones bullshit in question, that is an attack.

I want to be clear, I am absolutely in favor of including people that have been excluded for way too long. But not everything that is marketed as "inclusive" is done for the excluded. PR and virtue-signalling are a thing, they have been for a long time, and they work.

The other point that strikes me as terribad for discussions is this one:

We pledge to prioritize marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. We will not act on complaints regarding:

  • Someone’s refusal to explain or debate social justice concepts

This is a prime example of echo-chambers. You say something that is currently controversial, either because you beliefve in it, or because you want to spark a flame-war (lets be honest, who doesn't love a good flamewar?)
Someone engages your argument, you submit a report and classify it as harassment because you "refuse to explain or debate social justice concepts".

And the COC supports that. Why?
If you don't want to discuss something, don't post it on the internet. There is always someone that disagrees, the typical "am I the only one?" question is almost always answered by a simple "thats a 1 in seven dot eight billion chance, so probably not".

It seems to me, that a lot of people jump on bandwagons here, freely repeating along half-truths they read a few posts back, further strengthening the echo. Some actually debate these things because they believe in them, which is exactly what should happen.

Others on the other hand, just repeat controversial things to farm some heart-emojis.
While this is one of the more typical behaviors of a social-platform with any kind of rating-mechanism, what DEV and many other platforms are missing is the counter weight.
A solid mechanism to downvote things and equalize echos.

Of course, you may say
this would lead to brigading, vote-flooding, or vote-bombing, which should be held in check!
I agree, but you don't achieve this by nuking everything you don't agree with, that itself is going against the very thing you want to protect:

fostering an open and welcoming environment

Let's go down the rabbit hole further. By stripping out the feature to express your disagreement safely without being punished, you get the exact same rapid momentum in the opposite direction.
There can be no equilibrium, if a rating/voting mechanism goes only one way.

But you can write comments to express your differing view point!, is what you might think now. Absolutely, I agree, but that loops us back to the beginning, being "marked as not constructive by the community".

What I learned is, that "inclusion" is a paradox.
That if you want to be inclusive, and heavily enforce this, you almost always exclude a huge chunk of people. Thereby inclusion is inherently exclusive.

So where does this post lead us? I don't know, it's just the rant of a dude that doesn't understand the discussion culture of the internet. A guy that is direct, and not afraid to step on your foot if you spout half-truths. A guy that gets marked as not-constructive and follows up with writing a gigantic tirade :D

Do I have a solution? No, not really. I would be rich if I had one on hand. All I want is a "dislike" button, but that's a thing I won't get in today's internet. I'll just leave comments and hope I'll get more cool discussions out of it :)

Feel free to chime in, and please, don't just echo me, hit me with the good stuff. I actually want discussions to embiggen the "apparently not yet big picture" I see.

Rock on and have a great weekend, I hope your weather is just as lovely as in my part of this beautiful rock!

Discussion (8)

jdforsythe profile image
Jeremy Forsythe

I could not agree with you more. The CoC seems to allow for freedom of expression as long as it agrees with a narrow viewpoint of the world. There's too much emphasis on the feeling of the reader. Nobody heard of "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me"?

If you are hurt or feel unsafe because someone said something on the Internet, you need to look in the mirror and tell yourself to grow up. And catering to those people brings your discussions to the lowest common denominator.

There can be no change without controversial speech and the CoC seems fine with controversial speech that follows one line of thinking but not okay with any disagreeing speech.

I once got my post removed from a tag meant for new developers because of the "tone". The post is simply that you need to be hungry to self study and continue learning or get out of the field because it isn't for you. Ouch. If that triggers you, you're going to have a hard time making it in the real world.

I'm old enough to remember when people had discussions with others who disagreed with them, on purpose, so they could learn and empathize. I'm old enough to remember when tolerance and inclusion was supposed to be about letting everyone be who they are. Now it's tolerance and inclusion if you agree with a single narrow viewpoint.

habereder profile image
Raphael Habereder Author

Thank you for your input Jeremy!
I greatly appreciate your point of view, sometimes it feels very strange to be "the one" that gets the boot, especially if you don't get notified in any way or have a process to appeal such decisions.

If you are hurt or feel unsafe because someone said something on the Internet, you need to look in the mirror and tell yourself to grow up. And catering to those people brings your discussions to the lowest common denominator.

I have to agree. I grew up having to stand my ground in discussions all the time, so I can pretty much sign your statement.
On the other hand, I can understand people getting hurt by words, so there should be some kind of instance that makes sure it doesn't escalate too much. If you have to insult someone, you loose the argument. But if the discussion is civil, I see no real reason for people to feel attacked. No idea how that would be policed in any way, someone is always going to be offended.

I'm old enough to remember when people had discussions with others who disagreed with them, on purpose, so they could learn and empathize.

That's exactly what I remember. The typical "debates" where you get an opponent that will attack you on purpose in any way possible, just to prepare you for "the real deal". I don't see that happening on the internet anymore. Either it's a fully fledged flamewar, where noone really wins, or it's going toward the echo-chambers/fanfare-circles.

Do you see any way to improve on social media platforms to encourage more "classic" debates?
I'm seriously at a loss, I have no idea what could be done to improve on the current trend, but I do like my debates a lot.

jdforsythe profile image
Jeremy Forsythe

I think the main problem is the philosophy that it is the platform's responsibility to "protect" the user. This leads to issues like overly-limiting codes of conduct or prior restraint, which is the enemy of freedom of speech and open discourse.

Personally I don't need any platform or person to protect me from hurtful people or discussions. On most platforms I can handle those situations myself through the use of the block feature. If I don't like someone's posts or comments, I can simply block them and I never have to interact with them again. I don't feel the need to ban them from a platform or stifle their freedom of speech because it doesn't align with my view of the world or I'm afraid it might hurt or offend others. I expect those other people to be adults and have the ability to click the block button for themselves.

I think if we want to improve the situation, we need social platforms to push back against the groups demanding prior restraint and tell them to simply block people they don't like. Get rid of the codes of conduct that try to prohibit any speech someone finds offensive because the fact is that's an impossibility. I find it utterly offensive that I can't say what I think because it might offend someone else. How do you protect against that? You simply cannot.

The elements who are driving these new methods of thought policing are socially immature and cannot handle ideas antithetical to their own beliefs. I know our moms told us we were special, but they didn't mean we're more special than everyone else. It's an arrogant disposition to believe you should be able to censor speech you disagree with and never have to hear opposing ideas or offensive language.

If you find yourself commonly starting sentences with "you shouldn't be able to..." then you don't understand the basic idea of liberty and the ideals that gave you the right to say that. The whole idea of 1984 was that the change of the language and the inability to express ideas is what enabled Big Brother and the party to take and keep power. It was about political correctness and stifling speech. If you cannot speak against the prevailing wind, it will never change direction.

kallmanation profile image
Nathan Kallman

I think having a constructive discussion requires mechanics that encourage actual discussion

"Social" media mechanics all encourage talking about others and talking over each other instead of talking to one another. (Putting your pithy statement over top of someone else's opinion is literally a mechanic of Twitter). Because posts are never directed to anyone in particular there can be no discourse. They only serve to echo with those that agree and ostracize those that don't.

There's no tolerance or inclusion in post-based communication because posts are are exclusive to one person's opinion.

habereder profile image
Raphael Habereder Author • Edited on

I think having a constructive discussion requires mechanics that encourage actual discussion

Do you have an idea how these mechanics could be implemented?
The only way I can see would be a system like reddit has for example.
Classical up-/down-votes, flagging comments that get downvoted below a certain threshold and hiding ratings for a certain amount of time.
I actually do like that system, even if reddit by itself has a very... different culture of discussion/user-base.

"Social" media mechanics all encourage talking about others and talking over each other instead of talking to one another

Exactly, I agree. Though tech sites like DEV for example, don't really fit the category of "social network" to me. I see it more as a "tech blog" network, where some kind of rating system would be beneficial. But that may just be my imagination, if others see it different, that's perfectly fine, then a rating system would probably have a lesser/bad impact.

There's no tolerance or inclusion in post-based communication because posts are are exclusive to one person's opinion.

I agree to a point. If someone posts something that is clearly wrong/badly informed, there should be a system to somehow notify them. The current system, on DEV for example, has no such mechanic.
All you can do is comment and hope to spark a conversation with the author, trying to rectify the information that way.
The rating system with the heart, unicorn or bookmark don't really give you a chance to do that imo.

190245 profile image

I think, that overall, conversations on Dev aren't the echo chamber you describe, but one must carefully word disagreements - this is no different than working in a multi-cultural office setting.

Sometimes, the community managers here get it a little wrong, but erring on the side of a minority is probably the right side to err on.

As an example here, someone replied to a comment of mine, I won't repeat it, but it's something my teenage son says to me all the time without any repercussions. I think the person that made the comment is probably younger than me, and was probably trying to express humour - so I responded as I do to my son, in an adult way, trying to encourage a conversation instead of defensive humour.

A Dev community manager marked it as in appropriate, and hit the "love" button on my comment. That's probably a little overzealous management in my opinion - but it's not my house, nor am I paying anyone to be here, so I don't set the rules.

habereder profile image
Raphael Habereder Author

To a degree I concur.

What happened to me in particular was that someone said "technology is inherently political", which I didn't agree with. The conversation always went the same way, Assumptions stated as widely accepted fact and questions were ignored.

I listed a few random technologies off the top of my head and asked what made them political, since they apparently all are.
Which got flagged.

Back then I learned that claims should be backed up, because they are invalid if they weren't.
This seems to be the default in political topics today, which I find infuriating.

But I definitely see the point you are making and will try to learn from your mindset!

190245 profile image
Dave • Edited on

See, I managed to dispute the base premise, you hold a (slightly) different opinion to me, neither of us were offended & no posts has to be redacted by anyone.

That, is how an online community should be, in my opinion.

FWIW, I'm with you re politics in tech - technology expresses no opinions, people using it does.