Periscope Depth

you should hear how she talks about you

I had an epiphany this weekend on why so many Internet arguments end in flames.

In the real world, arguments* end in one of four ways:


  1. Circumstances force the argument to an end: the server arrives with your food, the subway pulls up at your stop, the phone rings, etc.
  2. One side tires from the effort and abandons the discussion;
  3. Tempers escalate until the argument stops and another type of conflict begins: screaming match, slander, fisticuffs, etc.
  4. One side is convinced by the other.

I rank those in rough estimate of probability, from most frequent outcome to least frequent. I have no data outside of my own observations to back this up, but I’d guess that #1 and #2 end more than half the arguments I’ve ever seen or taken part in. #3 happens often enough to be notable but is not itself likely. And #4 is so rare as to be a rounding error.

Now consider an argument on the Internet: e.g., one of the many arguments I’ve entered or seen over the last week regarding Arizona’s new immigration law. Apply the four possible outcomes listed above:

One side is convinced. We can almost dismiss this out of hand.

One side tires from the effort and abandons the discussion. This can happen, but it’s less frequent than in the real world. Taking a side in an Internet argument is almost costless. You don’t have to devote any acuity to coming up with a quick response; a forum or e-mail feud can go hours or days between volleys. Hell, you don’t even have to stop doing what you were doing! If it’s on a blog that e-mails comments automatically, the argument comes to you. You can keep it up on your work computer, your home laptop, your iPhone – anywhere at all. Internet arguments are much less tiring** than staring someone in the face.

Tempers escalate until the argument stops. This is the most frequent outcome: some might say the defining characteristic of Internet arguments. But we’re still in search of why.

Circumstances force the argument to an end. And here we have it. As I said above, Internet arguments can take place over the leisurely course of hours or days. You can start one before you leave for work in the morning, check in on it between meetings, do some Wikipedia research and hammer away at it over lunch, and finish your day with one last sally before climbing into bed, whereupon you wonder why it always takes you so long to fall asleep.

Of the four possible reasons why an argument might stop, the Internet all but does away with two of them. One of them – a change in conviction – is no less rare than in the real world. So what does that leave but flames?

Internet arguments end in viciousness so often because they have nowhere else to go. Human beings aren’t born logical; it takes effort to maintain a line of reasoning. That effort tires us; sometimes we abandon it with a wave of our hand. Or sometimes circumstances allow us a graceful exit from the argument and we make a dash. But the Internet makes all forms of communication – even the fruitless ones that should end sooner – so much easier. Thanks, TBL!

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* I distinguish here between genuine arguments – debates meant to convince the other side, or a third party, about the correctness of an assertion – and fights, contests for alpha status, and personal jabs disguised as impartial contention. Some might say I’m drawing a meaningless distinction.

** As distinct from “tiresome.”