Monday, December 4, 2006

Signal and Noise in the Netocracy

There's a passing phrase in the recent Al Eisele complaint about the unruliness of internet discourse that bothers me: "I guess being brayed at by jackasses who rant and rave anonymously comes with the territory..." While the statement overall is perfectly apt, I want to discuss that one word, "anonymously."

It's unfair to excoriate netizens for being anonymous. This is a favored point of mainstream media (MSM hereafter) insiders to bring up - that you can look up their phone number if you try hard enough, and that the fact that many bloggers or commenters don't have that personal transparency somehow itself makes their opinions worth discounting for that reason alone. Mr. Eisele's offhand comment insinuates that it is the anonymity afforded by the internet which necessarily leads to the presence of such braying jackasses.

This argument might have merit provided that those same MSM "news media" sources hadn't already completely poisoned the practice of reasoned debate long ago. I see no reason why I should give more credence to a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity than to a KSLibMom or protonx82. It's not like using your real name is any guarantee whatsoever that your opinions will have a shred of merit. In fact, it is people using their real names who long ago started the practice of using fallacy and invective to shroud productive debate in public affairs. Entirely within the MSM world, this has been the case for a long time. Rupert Murdoch's current crusade against common sense in the public interest merely follows in a tradition previously championed by William Randolph Hearst. Limiting public expression to an insular cabal of credentialed contributors beholden to those who control the means of media production is no guarantee that such expression will produce ideas worthy of consideration. Bill O'Reilly would be no less insulting to the intellect of the nation if he wore a mask and called himself "AlwaysRight56." The corrollary of this point is that merely using an internet pseudonym should not be counted as a mark against the substantive content of one's argumentation.

In fact, the opposite may often prove to be the case. When one's name (and therefore credentials) are concealed, then analysis of one's arguments can't be compromised. See Alan B. Sokal and the Social Text Affair for an example of the degree to which a contributor's credentials can spoil the accuracy of editorial analysis and decision making. Also, from the point of view of any online contributor, if the only basis of your reputation is your writing itself, devoid of any "bio" or good name, then you will have an incentive to make your writing better. Those who feel they are known might slack off to rest on prior laurels, whereas those who are ever unknown must re-establish whatever reputation they desire with every word that they type.

Consider also that Mr. Eisele's extremely impressive bio completely fails to prevent him from holding forth exactly the kind of pissy bitch fight with trolls that most experienced netizens had learned long ago to stay well away from. By ignoring the more substantive responses to his previous offering and rather focusing on the replies from trolls, he is inevitably escalating his own discussion towards an event horizon of pure invective. Those of us more familiar with anonymous online discussion long ago learned the argumentative and decision-making techniques necessary to avoid such an eventuality. In contrast, neither Mr. Eisele's work for Walter Mondale, nor his extensive editorial experience on such worthy publications as "The Hill" have left him in the least wise prepared to deal with such a situation. This is a lesson that he's clearly learning the hard way, irrespective of his age and experience in the MSM and public policy worlds.

Mr. Eisele's current predicament exposes some of the difficulties that many MSM insiders are beholden to confront, given that the Internet is currently producing most of the good ideas for the Democratic Party at least. As most MSM "journalists" at present merely write off the new online debate going on all around them with the pithy term "the blogosphere," he should get a certain amount of credit for making any effort to hold an open discussion with the netizenry at all. But to the degree that the media Brahmin choose to engage such unwashed electronic masses directly, they commonly find themselves struggling with how to glean the signal from the noise in this arena, a problem which no amount of classical editorial experience can enlighten - even if you've worked on a "letters to the editor" page for years.

Reputable Journalism was based upon a flimsy unspoken contract that those who presented information in a certain way (e.g. "the news") would conform to certain norms of integrity regarding fact and bias (i.e. "journalism"). That contract has been thoroughly violated by now by those who would replace neutrality with a balance of extremes. One can't trust the word of a talking head with a $200 haircut and a charcoal-gray suit merely because the powers-that-be decided to give him airtime, now that the people in control of that airtime have proven themselves to be partisan hacks. It's far too late to worry about barbarians storming the gate, when the barbarians have been on the inside and running the place for some years now.

But now that the old method of separating Ivory Tower opinion from that of the Screaming Mob is no longer tenable, the question of how best to separate "signal" from "noise" in online debate is becoming increasingly pressing. Some technical approaches may have a certain degree of merit: both DailyKos and TPMCafe use community "rating" systems, in order to identify those contributors who have developed a reputation for worthy argumentation. Such methods at best present a compromise approach between the "Ivory Tower" separation of past eras and the apparent chaos produced by purely anonymous discourse. Nevertheless, "online reputation" schemes themselves risk re-establishing the same problem that classical MSM separation entails: that of creating new "insiders" and limiting the discussion primarily to them. As such, they may ultimately fail due to the risk of being rendered obsolete by newer, more vibrant debates. These are more likely to be produced by those who are focused on the discussion itself rather than on establishing their personal credentials in a new form: the "user rating" as the new resumé.

Whether or not some formal scheme ever pans out for determining one's position in the Netocracy to come, there are a number of techniques that any individual can apply right now which go a long wasy towards helping one participate in more substantive, high-quality discussions and fewer pointless flame wars.


1. Do Not Feed or Tease the Trolls

A "troll" is one who posts commentary designed solely to provoke an impassioned response. As such, it is worth remembering that trolls don't actually care about the issue at hand. In fact, they very well may not believe anything they say. They just want to push your buttons and get you to lower yourself to their level.

Ignore all invective. If something someone typed makes you angry, you should always assume that it was written specifically for that purpose. By allowing them to direct your response through provocation, you also allow them to spoil the quality of your further contributions.


2. Just because someone's mad at you doesn't mean they don't have a point

In supporting point (1) above, bear in mind that someone making a substantive point might also sprinkle inflammatory terms into their response. If you treat them as a mere troll, it makes it look like you fail to understand (or can't beat) their actual point. Blithely ignoring someone's substantive points, no matter how high-minded your reason for it, makes you look like you lack the ability to form a cogent response to them.

This situation is best resolved by engaging only the substantive portion of their reply, responding as if they had never called you a "fuckwit" to begin with. Think of expletives and abuse as a form of punctuation, expressing only the strength of feeling of a given point. Feel free to use it in the same fashion.


3. Remember that Critical Thinking class they made you take?

The Athenian Greeks developed formal logic as the basis of the practice of Philosophy primarily as a response to a similar situation, brought about by their early experiment with Democracy: when all voices are equal, how can one determine whose opinions have the greatest merit?

Dust off that old Phil 101 textbook and use its precepts to construct your posts and to critique those of others.


In Conclusion

The above is by no means a complete list of techniques for getting the most out of digital discourse. It is rather a mere handful of suggestions which represent the bare minimum that should be expected of any online contributor who wishes to be taken seriously in the online arena. Google the term "Netiquette" for any number of more complete and informative treatments than the bare sketch presented above.

However: In any online discussion, these techniques (and others) are no less a necessity for those accustomed to walking the halls of power than for those who never moved out of their parents' basements. No one gets a free pass. Because in the future, it won't matter which Vice-Presidents you worked for, what lofty publications you helmed, or how many years' experience you have put in to the practices of public policy development and responsible journalism. You will be judged today by what you write today, and no amount of experience can protect you from making yourself look like a fool. It is necessary that you make your arguments as air-tight and idiot-proof as possible, and - no less importantly - that you engage your allies and opponents intelligently, without allowing yourself to be sidetracked from the purpose of the debate.

Such requirements weigh no less on the Al Eiseles of the Netocracy than they do on the WolfMan2000's.

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