Why are people so argumentative online? In an interesting article in the current RSA Journal, Ian Leslie suggests a number of reasons:

  • ‘Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing’ (Paul Graham). People are more likely to comment on things they disagree with. Aa a result, a big part of the economy of the internet runs on anger.
  • Bad temper is pervasive on social media because people are angry about not being listened to. Social media are rigged to give a few people huge amounts of attention, most very little.
  • Online conversations tend to lose their original context. Comments are responses only to the most recent comment. Arguments tend to become about nothing but themselves.

Leslie says: “It takes years – centuries – to develop the kinds of social norms that help us to know, instinctively, what is or is not the right topic to discuss over dinner, or how to conduct a conversation with a stranger. But the whole online social universe has exploded only in the last couple of decades, catching us unawares. So we have fallen back on more primal instincts such as self-defence, vigilance and impulsive gratification. We can make a start on correcting this by designing online spaces that are conducive to thoughtful disagreement and the civil exchange of ideas and opinions.”

I think these are good points. And, I think there’s more to the ‘argumentative online’ problem than that.

When Leslie’s talking about people being more argumentative online, I think he’s specifically referring to asynchronous public or semi-public conversations: Twitter, Facebook, forums, YouTube etc.

What about the rest of the online world? What happens there? And what can we learn from that?

How about synchronous interactions online, when we’re all there at the same time but in different places?

There are some truly dreadful ‘live online’ events, of course, where there’s very little interaction. Where one person talks over slides and hundreds of attendees pretend to listen while getting on with their emails. It’s easy to not have arguments when nobody’s bothered.

But increasingly, really interactive synchronous events are happening online. The RSA has run several, on some big themes. Online Open Space events are becoming more of a ‘thing”. I’ll be running one at the Remote Forever Summit in November, for example.

And I’m pretty confident that these synchronous events don’t suffer much from ‘argumentative’ behaviours. (Please do correct me in the comments below if I’m wrong.)

When I facilitate live online events over video conference, even when we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of controversial stuff, or when the participants are complete strangers to each other, disagreements are usually pretty civilised.

When things get ‘lively’, there are things we know we can do about it. If the argument is relevant to the group, we’ll help the discussion play out, and find ways to make sure everyone learns from the interaction. If it’s not relevant, someone will suggest that the protagonists ‘take it offline’ to a private conversation.

We can know how to do conversations over the internet. We can easily transfer our wisdom from centuries of face-to-face social interactions to this context.

It’s not the ‘online-ness’ that’s the difficulty.  Neither is it the text-ness, it seems: I understand that YouTube has sparked murderous disputes.

Why are people so ‘argumentative online’? Because the conversation is:

  • asynchronous
  • in public.

So if you want the fun of online interaction without the arguments, the thing to do is to engage in less-public spaces, in real time. Connect with interesting people about the topics that matter to you.

And if you find yourself in an argument in an asynchronous, public space… feel free to ‘take it offline’.

    4 replies to "Why Are People So Argumentative Online?"

    • Judy

      Thanks. I used to think that – but I don’t see the same level of rudeness in audio conferences. And there’s no real eye contact on video calls, either.

    • Ed Fletcher

      This is a really interesting topic, and one that’s bothered me for some time. As the article says, we have developed the social norms to communicate socially when face to face, so what makes it so hard online? I think its partially about the protective nature of the screen behind which we sit.
      We see comments online that we know would never be uttered outloud in person. That could be because the most we can expect in come-back is a capitalised written response. The “cost” of showing anger and being more primal in our response is so much smaller than it is in person, so the incentive to curb the base anger response is also much smaller.
      Hopefully there’s some research in this area. I’d love to see some evidence to back (or disprove) the theory.

    • Tom Scanlan

      Anonymity is another factor online, be it synchronous or asynchronous. When a person’s “handle” is not the person’s name, whey will say things that they would not normally say, because their true identity is hidden. In the absence of consequences, social guard rails such as tact and decorum are eliminated, allowing the evil inside to flow freely.

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