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Debates and Discussions in Internet Forums

By RadiantMatrix in Culture
Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 09:27:48 AM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)
Internet

Like most techs, I spend several hours each day browsing various online forums: from Usenet to e-mail lists to weblogs. Lately I've been a bit bothered by the constant debating. My understading of online forums is that they exist (for the most part) either to inform, or to promote discussion. It is the latter that I wish to draw your attention to.

While debating is certainly a valuable form of discussion in many cases, it seems to me that there is far more debating in online forums than there is productive discussion.


English can be a bit ambiguous at times, so in the interest of clarity, let's work with the following definitions:
  • a debate is where partisans of opposed convictions defend their views.
  • a discussion is where a group searches honestly as without bias for a solution.
While I rarely see either of these exactly as defined -- the internet tends to blur a lot of lines -- most forums that I have encountered lean heavily toward debate rather than discussion.

There are, of course, many cases where debate is the ideal form of conversation. And I can see where debate is more likely to occur online: topics for conversation often evoke strong feelings of bias on several sides of an issue (for example, witness the ongoing emacs vs. vi "holy war"). However, I think the online community has become so conditioned to debating that we miss genuine opportunities to have discussions.

Evidence of this can be seen by looking through Usenet newsgroups. With the exception of a few well-moderated help groups, Usenet amounts to a large collection of debates, namecalling, and flamewars peppered with some useful information. It is very rare to see a real discussion. Do we always need to take sides? There are many instances where a group that is currently debating could accomplish much by agreeing to disagree and working together to find a solution.

A perfect example of such a situation is the KDE/Gnome war. Anyone who followed the development of KDE near the time when the Gnome project began will probably recall the angry words exchanged on mailing lists and newsgroups. As we stand now, KDE and Gnome developers have (for the most part) agreed to disagree on approach, and work toward a common desktop for Linux. Now KDE and Gnome interoperate rather well, and everyone benefits.

Kuro5hin is a bit unique, since it allows its users to vote on conversation-worthy stories -- but it too falls prey to the "we must debate" mentality. I have regularly seen editorial comments like 'I'm voting to dump this because we can all agree this is a problem, so there is nothing to debate about'. I paraphrase, of course, but extremely similar comments have been made. Have we forgotten that discussing something we all agree is a problem might be useful? Or are we content to merely agree that a problem exists without attempting to come to a useful solution?

Never do I want to see the art of debate go by the wayside. All I ask is that we pay attention to how consumed in the spirit of debate we become -- we may be missing some opportunities for genuine discussion.

This article is a re-submission based on community feedback. Thanks to all K5 readers for your advice

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Poll
In online discussions, I...
o start/continue flame wars 14%
o usually debate topics 19%
o usually avoid debates 3%
o read, but rarely post 57%
o don't read or post (how are you seeing this poll?) 5%

Votes: 57
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Debates and Discussions in Internet Forums | 12 comments (12 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
I agree with you... but (3.66 / 6) (#1)
by semis on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 07:51:02 AM EST

When I click the "Post A Comment" link, it's more often than not because I genuinely do want to post a _comment_. Like "wow, that was cool".. or "hey, i've seen what you guys are debating/arguing about.. here is my (neutral) comment".

Now, although I put the "...but" at the end of the subject, my post is in fact a comment rather than a debate/discussion.

I think what you have touched upon is very worthy of both discussion and comment. I think its finding the right balance between comments and discussion that make a story and it's threads interesting. And it's at this point that this post is more becoming an opinion rather than a comment.. so I shall leave it right here :)



it's a meta-discussion! (2.33 / 3) (#2)
by vinay on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 09:11:43 AM EST

Wow. That's cool. I think part of the problem is that when we all figure we agree on something, a solution has been reached (not that this is right).

<jest lvl=1/2>maybe it's so much work to agree on something, that we assume that when we do find something, it's not a problem</jest>

in all seriousness, however, we forget that while we agree on a generalized topic or existence of a problem, it's often very beneficial to discuss it and explore the ramifications and finer points of detail. So, it's not that we are content, just that we easily grow complacent.

This meta-discussion is a perfect idea, because it does a good job of bringing the phenomenon to light, while at the same time promoting discussion about it. That's all for now, I'm sure I'll have more to warble on later!

-\/

-\/


Debates vs discussions (4.00 / 2) (#3)
by Beorn on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 09:25:56 AM EST

Then all debates are biased and dishonest? Rhetorics is a long and honorable tradition. Don't generalize based on a few extreme examples.

I think what you call discussions are appropriate in situations where reaching agreement is a goal in itself, (such as practical politics). But polite understandment and careful diplomacy is not the way to explore new ideas, where it's more important to state your own opinion than to agree with everyone else. Serious but opinionated debates are necessary when reaching the Truth is most important.

Of course, strong opinions and a strong ego doesn't mean you have to be a stubborn idiot.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]

Re: Debates vs discussions (2.00 / 2) (#5)
by RadiantMatrix on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 02:40:56 PM EST

Then all debates are biased and dishonest? Rhetorics is a long and honorable tradition. Don't generalize based on a few extreme examples.
Well, no, not exactly - the vast majority of debates are biased, otherwise they would be very short debates indeed. I think if a debate is unbiased, it becomes discussion. Unfortunately the terms are ambiguous, which is why I used those definitions for the confines of this story.

And, like I said, there are many times when debate is the best way to approach a topic.
--
I'm not going out with a "meh". I plan to live, dammit. [ZorbaTHut]

[ Parent ]

Re: Debates vs discussions (4.00 / 1) (#7)
by Beorn on Thu Oct 12, 2000 at 03:39:18 AM EST

Well, no, not exactly - the vast majority of debates are biased, otherwise they would be very short debates indeed. I think if a debate is unbiased, it becomes discussion.

Bias is a negative word, indicating prejudice and dogmatism. Some debaters are biased, others are not. These issues should be solved within the debate itself, rather than dismissing *all* debates on principle.

Unfortunately the terms are ambiguous, which is why I used those definitions for the confines of this story.

I've never seen 'debate' and 'discussion' defined this way before, and I don't agree with the new meanings you've given them. Debates can have many properties: they can be based on strong opinions, or they can be focused on exploring new issues. They can be everything from cooperative brainstorming to trench wars. Debates can be good, bad, or in-between. Your definitions doesn't capture these nuances.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Definitions (none / 0) (#9)
by RadiantMatrix on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 05:56:00 PM EST

Bias is a negative word, indicating prejudice and dogmatism.
Actually, bias indicates strong orientation: it is often used to describe properties of inanimate objects, such as electronic components, as well as personality traits - debates are usually biased, because those involved usually do not agree with each other! Besides, this article does not exist to define the words - I used those definitions prescicely because there are many definitions for each word (not to mention avoiding the conversation we're having)
--
I'm not going out with a "meh". I plan to live, dammit. [ZorbaTHut]

[ Parent ]
Re: Definitions (none / 0) (#10)
by Beorn on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 05:54:34 AM EST

Actually, bias indicates strong orientation: it is often used to describe properties of inanimate objects, such as electronic components, as well as personality traits - debates are usually biased, because those involved usually do not agree with each other!

According to this, bias indicates prejudice. I think the term should be avoided except when accusing someone of being irrational. If you just define bias as opinion, why do we need the word at all?

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Avoiding Dictionary Definitions (none / 0) (#11)
by RadiantMatrix on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 03:52:06 PM EST

<blockquote type="cite>If you just define bias as opinion, why do we need the word at all? When I originally submitted this, I was chided for using the dictionary definitions of the words - and rightly so: by the dictionary definition, debate and discussion are interchangable. Besides, I don't define bias as opinion, but as a strong opinion, especially one influenced by purely subjective elements.

To illustrate the difference: it is my opinion that K5 is a good site - this is a simple opinion, and I wouldn't debate it with anyone. I have bias toward Linux: I would rather use Linux than Microsoft anything, even if that MS product is technologically superior. Can you see my point?
--
I'm not going out with a "meh". I plan to live, dammit. [ZorbaTHut]

[ Parent ]

How much wood would a woodchucker chuck (none / 0) (#12)
by Beorn on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 04:12:49 AM EST

I have bias toward Linux: I would rather use Linux than Microsoft anything, even if that MS product is technologically superior. Can you see my point?

Yes, I can. There's no point in an endless argument over definitions. You're biased for bias, and I'm biased against it. :)

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Why people debate (3.66 / 3) (#4)
by FreshView on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 10:34:15 AM EST

Well, I've been in on my share of Internet discussions, and the most common debates center around matters of opinion, or unprovable facts.

We have the "is napster breaking laws" debate, quite honestly, the answer is... none of us techy types really know. I don't know copyright law, and I don't know, for sure that they ARE breaking laws, yet for months, the debate raged on, unabated.

Of course there's the "Linux Vs Windows" HOLY WAR, and that really (let's face it, everyone), comes down to a matter of opinion, in all honestly, I can't say either OS is truly "better" than the other, I just happen to use windows more, because the work I do is in windows, and therefore it is the most useful environment at home (work at home, etc), not that I don't like messing around with linux from time to tome.

On the gaming forums, we have the 3dfx vs. Nvidia debates, which, for a while boiled down to speed statistics and company loyalty (fanboys), but has now truly become another "image quality vs. speed" debate, which, settles back down into that opinion niche.

Even the KDE vs. Gnome battle comes down to opinion, even if it's just the opinion that Open Source is inherently better than closed source (and even now that's not really the issue at hand).

The truth is, I don't think opinion debates are very useful at all, because it's impossible for anyone to defend themselves. With the web as big as it is, most non-opinion debates boil down into someone finding a link to the facts and posting it, thus ending the debate.

Not that opinion debates don't have their place, they do, I think people should get a chance to see a wide variety of viewpoints, I just don't think they need to be carried as far as they generally are.

Oddly, debating about opinion seems to have nothing to do with sex, intelligence, age, or experience. Even as I decry the useless opinion debates around me, I often find myself getting into them. Perhaps it's just human nature.

I'd rather just talk... (2.33 / 3) (#6)
by itsbruce on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 06:59:43 PM EST

than endlessly talk about talking. Which is why I disagree with this story, why I voted to dump it and why there are only two sentences in this comment.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
Debates are good, too (none / 0) (#8)
by Broco on Fri Oct 13, 2000 at 03:56:02 PM EST

I think some good can be achieved by opposite sides defending their viewpoints.

First of all, opinions aren't necessarily black-and-white, either one side or the other. Having an opposing viewpoint explained to you can, if not change your opinion, at least nuance it. For example, I use vi for most things, but I sometimes use emacs because of its neat integration with gdb. Had I not known this I would be a vi-only user. I'm willing to make a compromise with someone else's opinion on most things if they point out something I hadn't thought of. Every so often I even defect to the other side :).

Also, debates help form the opinions of lurkers who haven't taken a side yet. Someone who had never heard of Unix before would probably benefit from a reasoned Linux/Windows debate.

Anyway, debates are fun! Most of the time, that's all message boards are good for anyway. The 'net would be boring if we couldn't flame each other. How often does a "genuine discussion" result in useful action anyway?

Klingon function calls do not have "parameters" - they have "arguments" - and they ALWAYS WIN THEM.

Debates and Discussions in Internet Forums | 12 comments (12 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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