18 votes

The things we do and do not say - Notes on the impossibility of talking online and rise of disinterpretation

7 comments

  1. [2]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    This puts words to what drove me away from the rest of the internet and here on to Tildes. I think "disinterpretation" as a term is spot on: The other piece that stuck out to me was this: I am...

    This puts words to what drove me away from the rest of the internet and here on to Tildes. I think "disinterpretation" as a term is spot on:

    Misinterpretation is when people incorrectly understand meaning. Disinterpretation is when they don’t have the intention of understanding it.

    The other piece that stuck out to me was this:

    We’re tilting toward a universe in which all discourse is subordinate to activism; everything is a narrative, and if you don’t stay on message then you’re contributing to the other team on any given issue.

    I am firmly on the left and spent years engaging in lots of satisfying and, I feel, important leftist "critique". The idea that we would pull apart and debate and poke holes in our own viewpoints and shift them as needed was incredibly valuable to me, and it's how I've arrived at and developed many of my own personal values and understanding of complex topics.

    I feel like much of that is lost in our current environment, however, as I now definitely silence many of my critiques for fear of looking like I'm either a part of the "other side" or, at the very least, deliberately choosing to bolster their arguments. I also fear doing it because even if it's seen for what it is, it's often responded to with hostility -- as a failure to fall in line and a surfacing of attack points for the "enemy" to engage.

    I think Tildes is better than most places, but I do think we're still subject to some of what this article has identified. I'm guilty of it myself too. I think it's been ingrained in us, and it takes a lot of deliberate undoing. So much of my time on this site has been an unlearning of toxic behavior patterns and beliefs about discourse that were forged in the fires of other internet platforms. I assume others here have experienced something similar. What can we do to help deprogram them in ourselves? What can we do to not recreate those problems here? I don't know that I have answers, but I do love that this place has so many people who are ready and willing to try.


    EDIT: One additional thought on the article: I was initially put off by the author's first examples, as he identified that people didn't interpret his one sentence hot takes correctly and those examples strike me as not indicative of the real problem. Single sentence hot takes are both fundamentally unclear and also deliberately provocative, so I don't think "people provoked by provocation" or "people misunderstand ambiguity" really capture the crux of the issue. The rest of the article is great though and does a much better job at highlighting the issue, I feel. I mention this just in case anyone starts the article with a bad taste in their mouth. It's well worth seeing through to the end.

    17 votes
    1. NaraVara
      Link Parent
      One thing the article points out, that I thought was its most trenchant point, was at the end where he points out what this dynamic does to people's abilities to be idiosyncratic or even engage in...

      I feel like much of that is lost in our current environment, however, as I now definitely silence many of my critiques for fear of looking like I'm either a part of the "other side" or, at the very least, deliberately choosing to bolster their arguments. I also fear doing it because even if it's seen for what it is, it's often responded to with hostility -- as a failure to fall in line and a surfacing of attack points for the "enemy" to engage.

      One thing the article points out, that I thought was its most trenchant point, was at the end where he points out what this dynamic does to people's abilities to be idiosyncratic or even engage in any form of public confession or self-interrogation.

      The late, great, David Graeber had a twitter thread before he passed away where he referenced working on an article about the evangelical roots of American progressivism and I definitely see shades of it in this discourse online. I clearly remember throughout the 90s Evangelical Christians basically pioneered this kind of discourse. They could only ever engage with media or writing or anything else with a sort of crude scorekeeping. They'd tally up all the ways in which the piece conforms to their checklist of "Godly conduct" and tally up all the ways in which it reinforced "sinful" thoughts. The latter they would excoriate you for and it led to this whole subculture of music and movies and books that were really annoyingly, performatively religious. The whole subculture of people were conditioned to think this is what being a "good Christian" must entail.

      I feel like tons of people internalized this form of engagement with the world and just replaced the ideological/values system on top of it. But the basic virtues and values (or lack thereof) that guide their behaviors haven't changed.

      9 votes
  2. Gatonegro
    Link
    Haven't read the article yet, but this bit from the Twitter thread feels so familiar. This is one of the reasons why I avoid talking about anything even remotely contentious with strangers online.

    Haven't read the article yet, but this bit from the Twitter thread feels so familiar.

    Often it happens because positions don’t instantly appear to fit into classic left-right or liberal-left binaries.

    This is one of the reasons why I avoid talking about anything even remotely contentious with strangers online.

    6 votes
  3. onyxleopard
    Link
    I think the fundamental issue is that most people don’t browse the web looking to engage in serious, literate thought or introspection. Most people don’t willingly do that at all offline either....

    If enough of us decide that the text itself doesn’t matter, that real exchange is pointless, and that these spaces are irredeemable, then we move closer to a nihilistic collapse in meaning.

    I think the fundamental issue is that most people don’t browse the web looking to engage in serious, literate thought or introspection. Most people don’t willingly do that at all offline either. For those of us who do, or who at least would like to dabble from time to time, the signal to noise ratios on the popular commercial platforms is antithetical to those endeavors.

    6 votes
  4. NaraVara
    Link
    I actually found this article via a twitter thread from the same author. It introduced me to a new concept ("disinterpretation") and seems to be a really good articulation of a tendency that I...

    I actually found this article via a twitter thread from the same author. It introduced me to a new concept ("disinterpretation") and seems to be a really good articulation of a tendency that I think a lot of people find frustrating about engaging in discourse both here and elsewhere on the internet. In particular it's addressing how often people seem to feel like they spend all their time clarifying "That's not what I said" or "Reread what I wrote."

    I encourage people to read the whole thing, but while it diagnoses the problem really well it is unfortunately, short on a productive way forward. So we're stuck having to figure that out for ourselves.

    4 votes
  5. mrnd
    Link
    I think there is something there, which explains the tendency for misinterpretation. We see so many similar arguments online, that we almost necessarily slip into this "meta-conversation" instead...

    Loofbourow also argues that in a zero trust and bad faith environment — she brings up the example of the pointlessness of debating an “all lives matter” proponent — that it makes sense to leap over text to subtext. “If you can predict every step of a controversy (including the backlash), it makes perfect sense to meta-argue instead--over what X really means, or implies, or what, down a road we know well, it confirms,” she wrote.

    The problem — and Loofbourow acknowledges this in her nuanced thread — is that you can’t always predict the flow of conversations, and you usually cannot predict all of someone’s views from one statement. In fact, even in our highly polarized society, quite often you can’t!

    I think there is something there, which explains the tendency for misinterpretation. We see so many similar arguments online, that we almost necessarily slip into this "meta-conversation" instead of actually listening. This seems like a hard problem: it is not really feasible to honestly engage with all the information and discussion online, because there is so much of it. But on the other hand, too much guessing leads to misunderstanding.

    Maybe the only solution for individual people is just to limit the scope of the online experience. Log out.

    4 votes
  6. skybrian
    Link
    Unfortunately I don't think describing this problem is likely to help much. People have many ways to show contempt for each other. Charging someone with "disinterpretation," if it caught on, would...

    Unfortunately I don't think describing this problem is likely to help much. People have many ways to show contempt for each other. Charging someone with "disinterpretation," if it caught on, would become yet another way to do it.

    It's like calling people trolls. Trolling exists, but accusations of trolling don't improve conversations. Similarly for misinformation and all the other things people charge each other with when they get suspicious.

    I was going to write a longer essay about this, but the urge has passed. To sum up, I think that showing contempt in online forums results in discussions that are no fun for anyone. To the extent that contempt is necessary, it should be made efficient.

    On Twitter, being able to block people and move on is more efficient than arguing with them. On Hacker News and Reddit, flagging things and downvoting are efficient. Getting into conversations about what's really worthy of contempt is not.

    There is a somewhat uncommon pattern on Hacker News where someone gets downvoted, and then they ask why, and someone (who might not have downvoted them) tries to explain. It seems like this is about as good as it gets, because they explicitly asked for feedback. Usually you don't ask about downvotes, and then nobody spends any time writing unwanted feedback.

    3 votes