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Learning to Argue Forward Instead of Talking Back

·827 words·4 mins

Here’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve read in my travels: If you see something online you don’t agree with, it’s 100% acceptable to shrug and move on to the next thing.

Probably sounds funny to hear something like this coming from me since these days I write in public a lot, but back in the day, I was a consummate lurker. I read capaciously and rarely ever commented. And indeed, I’m chiefly a lurker in my personal life. I read hundreds or thousands of posts every day, and I might only interact with a few, if any. Typically, I interact with people I know personally, if I want them to know something — usually volunteering something positive.

I’m in countless online groups and forums (for all sorts of niche interests) where I don’t write at all; I just read posts. There are a few groups that I’ve posted in once or twice — but typically because I stumbled across something interesting that fits the group theme. And I haven’t done that much. If I have a question, I typically search the archives before asking. This usually means that I don’t post questions, because it’s extremely rare that this strategy doesn’t work (nearly always, someone else has asked and received the answer before).

My history as a lurker/non-commenter was part of why I was surprised when I started to post daily online and got so many comments. Interestingly, there were people who replied routinely without even reading the piece they were responding to, either by direct admission (“I didn’t read past the headline, but…”) or as evidenced by their comment missing rather large, obvious parts of the piece.

There was a time years ago when I first started writing in public that I would reply a lot more to comments. These days I only do so very selectively — and tend to focus more on my reader mail over comments, which is also quite a lot for me to respond to. There are a few reasons for this: The first is that there are so many comments nowadays. Replying to all of them would be a full-time job — particularly as after you respond once, people will often reply back, creating a cycle of nonstop comments to reply to.

But that wasn’t the only reason. The reason is that when I engaged critics in the comments section, I would find after long draining and time-consuming exchanges that a lot of them were actually commenting in bad faith. They had a predefined point of view or agenda that they were eager to share and were simply using the comments section of the article as a vehicle to further talk about that — even if the piece had little (or occasionally nothing) to do with what they were trying to promote. And even if they had to ignore large parts of the writing to do so.

Not every commenter is like this, mind you — not by a long shot. But there are enough out there that once your audience gets big enough, you could end up doing nothing else but arguing with these folks all day.

The Arguing Forward Experiment

Whatever the case, I found that I could waste hours arguing with people back then, and it never went anywhere, and it would often devolve into readers getting in nasty fights with one another.

This is really the opposite of what I wanted out of a work-life balance and out of a platform.

So I tried something. When I felt that desire to argue with a comment, I took the intellectual energy I would have expended jousting in the comments section and instead wrote a well-reasoned, fully formed essay about my point of view, and I’d publish that instead. Not in the heat of the moment, mind you, but later after the conflict had faded.

I’d see something on the Internet I didn’t agree with — and I’d do what the advice suggested, I’d simply move on. Yes, even if that thing on the Internet was literally in the comments section of something I’d written. And I’d take that energy I would have used arguing and made something else.

What happened was astonishing. Instead of getting mired down infinitely in non-productive squabbles and tanking my productivity, I was made more productive by critical comments. In addition, I read some amazing discussions in the followup pieces that I’d post. Even the people who argued with me would do so in better faith and bring up more interesting nuances on the later post. For some reason, a followup piece generated far fewer bad faith and unproductive arguments than spending forever debating in the original comments section ever did.

This was arguing forward, I realized — instead of talking back. Learning to do this has made a huge difference. It felt extremely unnatural at first. But it was one of the most sanity-restoring, productivity-boosting things I’ve ever tried.


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