i think this is a helpful thing to explain.
Comment threads on the internet can be a dangerous and frightening place. Okay, that is probably not a necessary thing to explain. Because either you don’t participate in comment threads, or you have before and are very likely to know this. The anonymity one gets when one can hide behind a ‘Guest’ or ‘Pseudonym’ poster often gives people the bravado most of them would not have in the offline world. Freedom to say whatever aggressive, hurtful or disparaging things i want to because no one knows that it is me saying them. Some people manage to do all that and not even need the hidden identity. The freedom of sitting in front of a screen can sometimes be enough for people to write in a way they would not likely speak if they were face to face with you.
Yoda speaks some truth here. People who pick fights in message threads or word bully those who are trying to engage with the original thread are often referred to as ‘Trolls’ and the common wisdom is not to engage with them. They thrive on people fighting back or taking them on and typically that doesn’t tend to end well, or produce anything helpful.
For the most part i won’t take on trolls who are being offensive and hurtful to people for the sake of it. i have not seen much good come out of that. But there are times when i engage with someone in a comment thread and it can go back and forth for a long time and people sometimes ask me, ‘What is the point if you are not going to change the person’s mind?’
That is a very valid question and i think i have a valid answer for it:
i typically don’t enter into debate with someone online expecting them to change their opinion.
Don’t get me wrong – there is always space for that – i see myself as the eternal optimist and so always hold out hope that someone can see the error of their ways [if the person is in error – sometimes that person can be me, which is always good to keep in mind] BUT the chief purpose of my engagement with others is the idea of everyone else who is watching.
[A moment of clarification here: i am not only talking about engaging with actual troll types, but also about strongly worded arguments/discussions with people who think very differently with me on some point. They are not trolls. It is a very clear distinction although there can sometimes be crossover. If there is a clearly troll comment, i will often engage with it as if the person is not a troll, giving them the benefit of the doubt and hopefully creating some potential for change, but if that person responds as a troll then i will typically leave that conversation fairly quickly, although the same principles below apply]
On the internet there is always an audience. When someone has a really strong opinion and engages me on a topic, the likelihood is that we are both going to end the conversation still believing what we believe. But there might be a number of people who are following the conversation who are grappling with the issue, or wanting to know or understand more, and i typically stay engaged because of them.
One thing i hope is that my manner of engagement is a lesson in itself. This is definitely more true now than it would have been years ago when i would have been much quicker to just call someone who strongly disagreed with me a dick [or whatever the christian-approved equivalent of that word is]. Now i wait a couple more lines before i jump to that. No, but seriously, i hope that engaging with someone i disagree with strongly in a manner that lets them [and others watching] know i value them as a person and have respect for them can be a great show of grace and patience [which is something a lot of us need a lot more of]
Secondly, if i am arguing something i believe [i typically try not argue anything i don’t believe!] then there is the hope that people will have their present ideas challenged and [if i am right, which happens from time to time] even changed. It is almost always about the unseen audience beyond the person i am verbally wrestling with.
Which i think can be really helpful. Which is why i continue to. Sometimes [often!] it can be hard to not let emotion take over and say something out of anger or responding in a negative way to something that feels negative from the other person, and i definitely get this wrong at times. But a lot of the time i think it creates some helpful conversation and engagement for people on the edges to take not of.
And so that is why i run with trolls. And engage with others who think very differently to me, often in very strongly worded ways. When the person is troll-like in their behaviour, it can turn out to be hard sometimes. It is difficult not to take personal attack personally. And sometimes it feels like you end up on the fire. But more often than not, it feels like there is good to be achieved…
Have you ever observed an argument/discussion on a comment field that gave you something helpful to think about or changed your mind in some way?