The fear of being wrong on the Internet

Tue, Oct 15, 2013

All of us have opinions-some strong, some weak; some we care deeply about, some we couldn’t care less. We often express those opinions to others and sometimes people agree, sometimes they don’t. Debating with others about our opinions helps us crystallise or completely discard them.

I am fairly opinionated about a lot of things and have debates about them with friends and co-workers. Yet when it comes to opinions on the Internet, I shy away. Every single day, I come across issues and incidents about which I have opinions and every time I stare at what somebody else wrote, consider replying and ultimately close the tab after a minute. This happens on almost all the Internet communities I frequent - Twitter, Guardian’s Comment is Free, Guardian’s Football blogs and Hacker News.

I have lately been thinking why this is happening to me and I realise that the root of this is my fear of being wrong on the Internet. Now, I am wrong a lot of the time. I have been wrong in the past and like most of humanity, I will be on occasions in the future. I am not afraid of it. In real life arguments outside the Internet, when you are wrong, people will point out what part of an argument you are wrong about and why.

During pretty much all the debates I have in real life, we disagree. From issues as wide as programming languages, to tech conferences to the nature of federalism in India, we mostly disagree. At lunch tables, bars, Friday nights in restaurants, we disagree. We disagree to the point where we will be visibly upset. And yet, in the end, we shake hands, hug each other, finish our drinks or dinners and go our way. And invariably both sides would have learned from each other in the duration of the debate.

On the Internet, things are different. It is extremely hard to express certain things in writing, especially on a forum where the pace of the debate is intense and there is a churn of people and acceptance levels. The fact that written conversation lacks any tone does not help one bit. People have to assume each other’s motivations and perspective and it leads to snide and caustic replies followed by more snide and caustic replies. And when there is enough quorum for a lynch mob, the person who has the minority opinion gets textually beaten up. And in the end, everyone goes their own way, without patching up and not having learned anything from each other.

Now there are homogeneous communities where this does not happen often. People mostly get along and try to tackle the debate and not the man. But when that one person with an opinions countering the majority’s turns up, the debate takes a back seat and the regulars go in studs up and tackles the person instead of his debate which is oftentimes requires less energy to prove wrong than abusing the person expressing the opinion.

While a teenager the average YouTube comment thread will lead with “You are a faggot!” in reply to an opinion he disagrees with, places and people who consider themselves learned and sophisticated lead with comments of the “Oh, at least you can spell!” genre. Neither helps in expressing disagreement with the opinion, all the while being dangerously effective at expressing one’s displeasure for the person with the opinion.

Having said this, I still frequent these forums because I still learn a lot of things from people there. I am mostly a silent lurker and I think I will continue to be, in the near future.