Saturday, October 15, 2011

Uncorrected Errors

Someone is wrong on the internet.

One of the problems with being a teacher is that you are trained to correct people when they are wrong, to lead them away from their fallacies and their misconceptions, their factual gaps, and – let’s be honest here – the batshit insane gabbling that so many people refer to as their thought processes these days, and bring them into the promised land of verifiable evidence, logical consistency, historical accuracy and conclusions that wouldn’t embarrass a heroin addict mid-withdrawal.

This doesn’t generally work online.

I’ve been online continuously since 1993. Oh, not every waking minute, although sometimes it feels that way. I’ve just not taken any significant detours off of the information superhighway since the early Clinton years. I even remember when people said “information superhighway” without irony. I remember when graphical browsers were introduced. I remember when Yahoo had a feature labeled “What’s new?” that would list the fifty or so new websites that it found that day. I remember when Usenet was Teh Shiny.

Yes, there’s a point to all that, whippersnapper. Fetch me a whiskey and listen.

In that time I have learned, through hard experience, that people online are not susceptible to the same kind of educational processes that they are in the physical world.

That the anonymity and instantaneous gratification of newsgroups, chat rooms, commenting areas and other online fora do not reward considered thought, the willingness to admit error, or even basic civility.

That such fora are set up to encourage simple declarative statements, and the simpler the better – that anything requiring a subordinate clause, a moment’s reflection or any degree of subtlety more nuanced than grade-school name-calling is just a waste of time. That polarization sells. That the lowest common denominator can be astonishingly low indeed.

Not all of the corners of the internet are that way. I’ve found places where normal human discourse prevails online, where people take the time to examine what is said, consider it, and respond in kind, and I’m glad of them. Hell, I’ve even created some of them in classes I’ve taught with online students who took all my warnings seriously and went and had actual discussions in them, discussions I only had to monitor and evaluate, not lead.

But such corners are few and far between.

Perhaps the hardest thing this teacher has had to learn how to do online is to walk away from error.

To recognize the difference between someone who holds a position they wish to discuss and someone who is just shouting empty talking points.

To see when the walls of ignorance are so impenetrable that the person inside no longer can envision anything other than their own position, a position which seems to them all the world entire.

I’m not talking about differences of interpretation, where divergent positions can be supported by enough evidence to make discussion worthwhile. That sort of thing is what makes conversations worthwhile. I’m talking about people whose ignorance of reality is aggressive, complete and deeply cherished, whose entire position is based on delusion, the willful suppression of facts, and – distressingly, amazingly, proudly, and loudly often – a deep and abiding hatred of proper spelling and grammar, which at least provides a warning sign to the rest of us.

When all your training is to educate people, the fact that there is so often nothing to be gained by attempting to do so online is a hard one to swallow. But, it must be said, it is a realization that makes the world a much less stressful place.

I have learned not to comment when people say things that make me wonder how they managed to set their brains on fire without damaging their typing ability.

I have learned not to respond when I see things that make me doubt the wisdom of democracy.

I have learned that my time on this earth is limited and is better spent doing just about anything else besides trying to correct people on the internet.

Someone is wrong on the internet.

And wrong they shall remain.


Nathan said...

I stand corrected and shall remove my blog and all of its archives from the internet immediately, sir.

David said...

What good would that do besides removing one of my refuges from all that insanity, Nathan?

David said...

There are a number of reasons I'm proud to have that UCF logo on my blog.

The fact that the UCF constitutes one of the places where actual conversations happen online - with reason and listening and disagreements backed with evidence - is one of the biggest.

Tom said...

Reading your post, I thought, "Yeah, I know where some of those corners are. Hey, I helped build one!"

And then there are some people I know in meat-space. It is sometimes hard to ignore their bat guano craziness in person. It would be easier if they were just Internet phenomena. Sigh.

David said...

I've found that in meat-space most people - not all, but most - tend to dial down. They are often more willing to listen and consider. They're at least more polite.

This is true even for many people who go right off the deep end online.

The internet named but didn't invent the phenomenon of flamewars, with people shouting canned points past each other and calling each other vile names. But it does seem set up to to reward it more than face-to-face interaction does.

At least it does to me.