Is This The Right Booth For An Argument?
In this post I will make reference to different kinds of human spaces that are historically face-to-face settings. All of them are analogous to different parts of the Internet. And it will end with a pub - everyone loves a pub.
It the past I have assumed that the whole Internet is a forum. My exposure to it while still at uni involved discussion groups that were open to pretty much anything. Robust debate sometimes ensued. Sometimes however it got too much. There was a particular list I eventually left because the subject matter alternated between boring (computer programming) and frustrating (too many bold pronouncements on political topics from those with scant understanding of the topic). It was my decision to depart and I assume that happens all the time. There are always others conversations to be had. Still I was left with the impression that if you enter a space then you must be prepared to engage in debate. But there are all sorts of different spaces online.
Some spaces are fora and in these there is the assumption that everyone has a similar level of confidence and competence to debate. There will be some accepted rules of engagement regarding politeness and focusing on arguments rather than personal characteristics. There will be the ability to express an opinion and understand contrary opinions. There will be disputation but also some sort of semblance of respect. You will be given a chance to make mistakes and ignorance rather than malice is assumed to be your shortcoming. These and other criteria limit how many spaces online can be regarded as fora.
Many other spaces online are more akin to sheltered workshops. Opinions need time and space in which to safely be formed before they can enter into the sphere of debate. Many spaces online are incubators for particular perspectives in which the focus is on sharing a common perspective and imparting tools of argumentation. Wander into such a space thinking that it is a forum and you may get a nasty surprise. In the face-to-face world there is usually writing on the door to say what kind of support group is meeting. Sometimes there is even a lock on the door. Online there are sometimes locks too. Or even if you can blunder in there will still be signs if you pay attention to them. However it can be tricky - sometimes the signs are written in group-specific jargon. Beware words and phrases unusual to you. They may in fact indicate that this is an exclusive space. The debating society is further along the hallway and it is best to move on.
There are even some spaces online that are akin to shrines. Here words are uttered in reverence to particular statements of assumed truth or received wisdom. If you talk here it is best to do so as a mimic of others there and recite the same mantras over and over. It may seem as if I am mocking this kind of conduct but such things have existed for a long time and surely serve some sort of entrenched human need for comfort or security or predictability. If you wander into a shrine you observe quietly and keep your opinion that the fallen warrior interred here was a warmongering moron to yourself.
In a lot of cases these spaces are distinct and well-marked. They are discussion groups or weblogs in which the purpose and rules-of-engagement are stated in the banner or sidebar. However in other parts of the Internet these distinctions bleed together into a confusing cacophony of chatter. Some parts of it are fora and the assumption is then made that all of it is. I'm looking at you Facebook!
It seems almost everyone comes to FB but they do so with all manner of motives. Everyone has a page and that is a space for them but all these spaces intersect. And while I can choose my friends I cannot choose the friends of friends. Suddenly I can be exchanging opinions with anyone and some of them will have very different concepts of communication than I do. Is this a forum or a sheltered workshop or a shrine? It is all of these things and none - it is a public bar and every booth behaves differently. As you walk in and survey the scene I suggest you observe closely what is happening.
On that booth in the corner over there a handful sit and nurse drinks and stare into the mid-distance. The football team they support was thrashed today and they have nothing much to say. They just want to be together. Best to just let them be.
Closer there is a rowdy group who seem happy discussing anything and everything. There is bawdy humour and some of that good-natured insult-swapping that confused me as an adolescent (sometimes still does). Things are rarely what they seem however. They happily discuss anything except for that Summer Solstice party in 2001. Everyone pretends it never happened because of all the shaken egos and fractured emotions arising from that night. Luckily you have been told this (they will say that much). You will be fine here as long as you observe that taboo.
There is someone wandering from booth-to-booth cracking tired one-liners. Sometimes they are allowed a seat. More often they receive blank stares and move onto another group. There are also sometimes whole booths that behave in a manner that serves to keep themselves small. They glare at anyone who walks too close. I think that is a pity but some deem isolation better for them than mingling with a crowd in which there is too much difference. If you cannot have the pub just as you want it you can still have a booth exactly to your liking.
At my booth you can say different things as long as you play nice. We all have our own backgrounds and tales to tell. As a result we have our own flaws and shortcomings and some of them are well hidden. I hope you will keep that in mind as you sit here. You only ever know so much of the story of those sitting with you. You are all different. And yet try to remember you are also all the same - just human. Nobody is technically better or worse. Luckily this has pretty much always been the case with those I invite to my booth. I do have some buttons here that allow me to turn your chair into an ejector seat. Or I can lower a one-person cone-of-silence over you. Very rarely do I feel compelled to use them. And even if I do chances are I will still have to tolerate whomever I did that to coz they will soon be seen frequenting that booth across from mine.
Whoops - they just went and mentioned Summer Solstice 2001! Sometimes the fun comes from just watching what happens next.