Internet communication

So far on this website, we’ve got by without any of the rules of discussion that most blogs, forums, etc. seem to need. I was keen not to introduce them unnecessarily, and indeed, the discussion on the website itself so far has been almost without exception thoughtful and civilised. However, I’ve just had a discussion on our Facebook page that left me feeling decidedly bruised: one that, with hindsight, I should probably have avoided getting drawn into, since some of the warning signs were there quite early on. By the end of it, my contribution was being dismissed as ‘utter gibberish’, and in the final post from the other person (which I have deleted, because it was beyond the pale in my judgement) it was seriously being argued that this kind of language was OK because it wasn’t as bad as something stronger such as ‘bullshit’, and that my motives for objecting to it must be to create a distraction from losing the argument. Golden_Gardens_laptop_user

This has left me thinking that we probably need to be better prepared for the high likelihood of more people communicating in this kind of way in the future – with an agreed set of bottom line rules that we can point to and be clear about. The problem is not the worst and most obvious kind of internet offender – the spammer or the troll. These people get excluded early on, and usually don’t get as far as posting comments. The problem is the person who may have serious points that are worth listening to – but unfortunately combines that with wanting to ‘win’, or prove the superiority of their group or ideology, much more than having a genuine interest in getting  nearer to the truth of the matter. Personally, I am keen to listen to challenges, learn from them and respond to them. However, I’m not keen to be bullied by people who want to take advantage of my willingness to listen to them, and who do not reciprocate with any openness or flexibility of their own. I’m even less keen to see others treated in that way on this site or on our Facebook page – others who might potentially be more vulnerable that I. The unreflective contributor who wants to win (overwhelmingly male) tends to interpret every concession as a weakness to be exploited, and then lunge for the final kill, to complete the triumph on behalf of their tribe. I don’t think we should underestimate how nasty and disruptive such people can be.

It seems to me that rules are probably the best and most effective way of dealing with such people. There are some that do not want to engage in internet discussion at all, because they perceive it as being dominated by this sort of interaction. But internet discussion can be rich and rewarding. It can certainly challenge us in ways we would not otherwise have been challenged, in communication with people we would never have communicated with before the internet. In my view, those who don’t want to engage in it are missing something of potential value. The Middle Way here seems to be to try to provide a safe and moderated environment where even those with limited confidence in internet discussion can engage in it without fear of being bullied in any way. The basic problem with the internet is that people generally only engage with it using their left brains, with all the contextual signals of face-to-face communication (that would come through the right brain) missing. So, to make up for this, we need to bring in additional prompts for the left brain to connect with the wider awareness of the right.

So, I’m going to suggest a draft set of rules that I think would be in harmony with the Middle Way approach and the values of the society. I’ve tried to keep these as simple as possible and got them down to nine. I’d like these rules to apply to this website, to our Facebook page, and to a forum if we ever manage to get one going. I’d like your feedback on these.

1. Try to be aware of both yourself and the recipient of your communication as embodied people.

2. Every embodied person has experiences to communicate that are worth crediting, even if you think their interpretation of them is mistaken.

3. Do not make assumptions about the motives of a person you don’t otherwise know based only on text you have read on the internet. Most of these assumptions are likely to be deluded projections.

4. Do not use unnecessarily emotive language of any kind to express disagreement. There are always more neutral-sounding alternatives that make the same point. For example, don’t write “That’s nonsense” but “I disagree with that”.

5. Take responsibility for your own judgements, even if they are influenced by others. Offer justifications for your claims, and recognise your assumptions if they are pointed out.

6. Make your judgements incremental rather than absolute, unless you are pointing out an absolute claim: e.g. not “that’s completely wrong” but “I can’t see much support for that” or “that view seems to be a metaphysical claim beyond experience”.

7. Do not use appeals to an authoritative source – e.g. tradition, scripture, science, popularity, convention etc. to try to prove or disprove any claim. At best these kinds of sources may increase or decrease credibility, sometimes strongly but not absolutely.

8. Apply the principle of charity in interpreting ambiguous statements positively. E.g. If a group of people is criticised that might be interpreted as including you, do not identify with that group and assume that the criticism is directed at you.

9. Try to bring about a consensus in which those who disagree find some common ground, or at least clarify what they disagree about. Do not try to win.

There are dangers with rules: obviously that we can get too tied to them and become bureaucratic. The very introduction of a rule changes the tone of things in a way I rather regret, which is why I wanted to put them off as long as possible. However, I think they have to be rules rather than just guidelines, because they may need to be applied to unsympathetic strangers to the site who object to being moderated. Like all rules, they seem to be an unfortunate necessity

Do you agree? Do we need rules? Are these the right sorts of rules?


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

10 thoughts on “Internet communication

  1. Hi Robert,

    I think that rules are, unfortunately, a necessity – but they clearly need to be devised and implemented with care. Internet chat can become very nasty, very quickly and I think that this can sometimes have serious consequences for the recipient of abuse. Once a discussion (on-line or face to face) becomes overly heated then any progress that might otherwise be made is halted and, in my opinion, should not (usually) continue further.

    My personal belief is that most subjects (and most language) are o.k. as long as a discussion does not involve personal insults – which could range from a criticism of spelling to something more serious.

    Having said that, your rules seem fine to me, with the exception of #8. I think that this type of appeal is inevitable and I don’t see how it (in itself) will cause any problem in a discussion, the problem would come with the addition of abusive/ aggressive language. If somebody want’s to appeal to Harry Potter to disprove a point that I have made, then fine – as long as I am also free to challenge their view. #2 might be difficult to uphold (as it is written), but I agree with the principle.


  2. I read most of the Face book exchanges you had Robert, it is very unfortunate that you came up against such a belligerent person. I think I would be exceedingly upset if such language was used in reply to one of my threads. I am very wary of saying very much on Face Book, as I have been warned how a situation can turn very toxic.
    I am about to write another painting blog in lighter vein.

  3. Hi Richard, The point I was trying to get at in no.7 is not that we should try to stop people appealing to various sources to support their argument (incrementally), but rather that they should not insist that such sources prove the point conclusively. If they do, my thought is that they become immune from any further argument in a way that makes progress in the discussion impossible and deadlock and frustration rather likely.

    Of course I also agree that personal insults and aggressive language are a bad idea, but I think that these categories are also too vague to be of much help. I’m trying to be a bit more specific in what I hope is helpful way. For example, it’s not clear to me whether ‘utter gibberish’ was a personal insult or aggressive language just on that description. However it was unnecessarily emotive language (3) and an absolute dismissal (6).

    Norma, Thanks for the support, and I look forward to your painting blog. Are you generally supportive of the idea of having rules of discussion on the site and on the Facebook page?

    1. Hi Robert, I do support the idea of having rules, it’s a shame that they are necessary.
      I tried to enlarge the Chagall lithograph image, I’m sorry to say i didn’t succeed, may I ask you please, to do as you did with a previous image and enlarge this one too? Thank you.

    2. I’ve read and thought about the rules. I can think of several occasions when my own posts have shown little regard for the principles the rules embrace and which they promote, so I think the rules will be a very useful guide for me in future.

      I also like the way they’re written. It’s good to see rules that don’t appeal to authoritative sources, particularly to scriptural ones, but also to other authoritative sources that I might otherwise have overlooked.

      So it’s a thumbs up for the rules from me.

  4. Hi Robert,

    In that case I would agree with point 7 but perhaps that needs to be made a little clearer.

    I think that there must be a balance between my very vague requirements and those that are more prescriptive. The reason that I am vague in what I regard as reasonable behaviour is that the context of a conversation is important. ‘That’s nonsense’ might be OK in the context of a friendly or jokey conversation, whereas in the context of a heated and aggressive conversation it would not. I have not seen the conversation that you were involved in, but it seems that context and intention behind the language used played an important part.

    Having said that, I am not sure that in most cases the term ‘utter gibberish’ – when directed at an individual – would be acceptable. You said that ‘it’s not clear to me whether ‘utter gibberish’ was a personal insult or aggressive language just on that description’. I would say that it could be regarded as both, regardless of context (unless the author has made a concerted effort to make it clear that it is not).

    Perhaps the ‘rules’ could have examples of ‘do’s’ as well as don’t’s. For example:

    7. Avoid using appeals to an authoritative source – e.g. tradition, scripture, science, popularity, convention etc. to try to conclusively prove or disprove any claim. By all means use sources to back up statements that you have made, but accept that this does not guarantee agreement from other parties. [or something like this].

    It might be worth highlighting that it is OK to ‘agree to disagree’ and that this is often necessary in many discussions.


    1. Hi Rich,
      I agree with you very much here about no.7, and your suggestion seems to be an improvement on my previous proposal. 1 and 2 are also much more ‘do’s’ than ‘don’ts’.

      Jokey conversations are one of the issues with any kind of rules on internet conversation. There’s always a potential for being too po-faced and severe in attitude whenever rules are applied. However, I think that no.1 and no.3 are relevant to this. If we remember that the people involved are embodied and possibly in very different physical and cultural surroundings, then it seems necessary to take care with this even when you’re mainly addressing someone you know quite well in a public post. Other people may interpret the words completely differently. Emoticons 🙂 may help, but they can also be abused. If my interlocutor on the Facebook conversation (I’m trying not to name him to stop this seeming like a personal crusade) had written “utter gibberish :-)”, I’m not sure it would be much better, but if someone I knew, like yourself, did so, I’d probably be far less offended.

      It’s always going to be a matter of circumstantial judgement, but I think no.3 offers a good way to approach it. If you know someone well, you can have a reasonable guess at their motives and probably mild jokey pokiness will be OK. If you’ve just met them on the internet and you try to be jokey, you’re also making lots of risky assumptions about their culture, state of mind and motives.

  5. We discussed these in the society committee on 4th Jan. There will be some amendments, given the comments above and some further useful comments by Barry, and they will be adopted on the website and the Facebook page forthwith. The final version will be put on a separate page under the ‘about’ heading.

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