Trolling Makes Us Smarter and Nicer, Srysly

By Graham Peterson

I don’t mean trolling as in OG trolling like when I was 13 years old (which was 17 years ago, oy), and used to show up in #Catholic on IRC to say nasty things for the lolls. And I don’t mean the more sophisticated version where people pretend to be confederates in one or another blog or forum and deliberately say things that will upset people for no better reason than to upset them. These trolls are hilarious. But rare.

I’m talking about the much more common, now ubiquitous misuse of the word trolling to denote a person with sincere beliefs who argues with strangers because of her desire to persuade and effect change, and who enters online speech communities that offer enough anonymity or physical distance to make crossing social space in order to discuss controversial issues feel comfortable.

It is precisely this kind of trolling which is making us much, much smarter, and more tolerant. The opportunity people now have to match with one another in an ideological market, is unprecedented.  Neither I nor you often challenge the foundational beliefs of our best friends. We gossip about each other’s love lives and make fun of our mutual friends. There’s drinking involved.

But people at the fringes of my social network on my Facebook regularly engage me, and me them, in protracted and hot debate over tons of issues. And here’s the kicker: the number of these conversations increase in direct proportion to the amount of social space between me and my alters. Give me a magazine’s comment section, or blog roll for a tangential professional interest of mine, and, well there you go.

This is what we in sociology might call another instance of the strength of weak ties. One of the strengths of the weak ties on the internet, the weak tie between you and that retweeted rando you battled twits with, is that these weak ties strengthen people’s beliefs and positions, force them to reconsider things they hadn’t thought through well, and expand the existential margins of their lives. This is an incredibly good thing.

People generally assume, on first blush, that all of the battles and nastiness on the internet is an example of just how shitty human beings are, especially when they’re anonymous. To the contrary, I say!  These are conversations that people straight up were just not having before our new technology made communicating with people across further distances in social space exponentially cheaper.

To lok at the nasty things getting said on Youtube’s comments and conclude that internet arguing is lowering the equilibrium of persuasion is to mistake relative for absolute differences.  Sure, relative to the most recent paper presentation at MIT, Youtube comments look . . . ok fine.  But the absolute margin of change for any individual is what matters.  That Youtube commenters (and their many analogues online: sup Reddit) were not discussing matters at all before, and are now making progress toward something that looks like a thought, or a tweet, or FB comment, is remarkable and inspiring.

Baiting one another into debate and venting each other’s biases and bigotry is the first step toward having a reasoned discourse. No one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity. So let’s not mistake the immediate effects of this most recent increase in human dialogue with its likely long run consequences.

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