The stupidity of online discourse

There’s an online game I find myself playing way too much of, and I hate it. I would love to never play this game again, but its existence is a consequence of the deep structure of social media, so if I’m going to argue about things on the internet, then playing it is unavoidable.

I call this game, “Where Is the Discourse?” It goes something like this:

  1. Alice opens with a few examples of an argument (or point of view, or sentiment, or whatever) that she doesn’t think much of and would like to refute.
  2. Bob counters that nobody who matters is making that argument and that Alice’s examples are cherry-picked (or “nutpicked” to use the old “blogosphere” term from the mid-2000s).
  3. Alice responds to Bob by highlighting the credentials of the people behind a few of her examples. Maybe they have large social media followings or notable institutional affiliations. Or maybe the person is a total rando, but the tweet or screen-cap or Forbes article with the person’s byline on it has tons of shares.
  4. Bob then works his way through Alice’s response by picking apart, in detail, the qualifications and standing of each of the people she has put forth.
  5. (Optional step): Alice rebuts Bob with a defense of each individual’s standing as a qualified participant in the Discourse, and both parties drift further into the weeds of credentials, metrics, and bona fides.

By the time they get to move #4 in this game, the debate has shifted entirely from a fight over the merits of the argument Alice sought to refute to a squabble over whether or not this specific list of individuals is representative of any larger group, movement, or way of thinking.

In other words, Alice and Bob are now fighting over the location of the Discourse. Where is it? Who is and is not a participant in it? Which bylines, institutional affiliations, follower counts, or engagement metrics qualify an individual as a bona fide participant in the Discourse?

Back in the bad old days of media monopolies, everyone knew where the Discourse was. If you had a local monopoly on one or more scarce channels of distribution — a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, newsstand, library shelf space, or print facilities plus a fleet of delivery vehicles — then you were definitionally a site of the Discourse and could gatekeep who participated and who did not.

But now that everyone with smartphone access has the ability to publish text, images, sound, and video instantly for the entire planet to see, our society has collectively lost track of the location of the Discourse in the space of about a decade and a half. No new discursive Schelling point has emerged to replace the now-dead radio, TV, and print monopolies. We are adrift.

Perhaps the most corrosive effect of “Where Is the Discourse?” on our collective intellectual life is the way it reduces even the loftiest issues down to petty fights over credentials.

I’m reminded of the adage, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” The discourse game, then, is a powerful mechanism for turning every discussion of ideas into a discussion of people, thereby shrinking the mind of each player by two sizes.

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