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Posts Tagged ‘internet culture’

The ever-industrious folks at ARG:Dundee (the group behind the popular argument diagramming software Araucaria) have a lovely new tool for keeping track of and participating in argumentation on the “blogosphere”.  They call it “argublogging“. I think it’s an impressive extension of the work they’ve done on the Argument Interchcange Format, or AIF. The video below gives a demonstration of how ArguBlogging works.  If you use argument diagrams in class and discuss the kinds of current events that get discussed on blogs then this program may well be your new best friend. Have a look. Try it out.  Send them feedback.  This is work worth supporting.

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The increasing popularity of on-line discussions has given rise to an argumentative neologism that may be more widely applicable: “trolls.”  Trolls commit an inappropriate move in an argument, saying something unreasonable that derails the discussion.  (I recall analogously in my highschool biology class we learned to ask the teacher, Mr. Houghton, about living through the London Blitz in order to steer the conversation away from the work at hand.)

These unpleasant people are not trolling the web in the sense of carefree fishing, or surfing, but today Mike Elgan, who bills himself as “the world’s only loveable technology writer,” suggests that trolls are seeking something, namely attention.  That quest does not particularly distinguish trolls from the rest of us, but it does explain the behaviour as depending on that exclusive or predominant motivation.

Trolls are argumentative, and they may be either deliberate and malicious or inadvertent and well-intentioned.  Egan’s distinction, borrowed from Matt Honan, between deliberate and inadvertent trolls corresponds to Walton’s distinction between fallacies that are sophisms and those that are paralogisms.

Yet Elgan points out that those who are well-intentioned and argumentative (the academy is so full) are not always trolls.  Passionate advocacy frequently may be trying but it need not be ugly, and it is often beautiful and worthwhile.

How then do we identify trolls?  Might this be a species of fallacy that can be identified as deviating from an otherwise acceptable form of argumentation, that is to say forms of advocacy?  Perhaps we could articulate the appropriate critical questions (using the Walton / Tindale model of fallacies) for identifying such trolls.

If the desire for attention is the cause of the misstep, then what is the missing (or side-lined) motivation that would be appropriate?  How ought we to be motivated?  That is a central question of argumentation theory, and answers include resolving disagreement (pragma-dialectics) and developing understanding (epistemology). Fabricated disagreement and errant claims thus would be paradigmatic troll moves, but that is only to say they are fallacious.

If trolls fit no particular pattern of fallacious reasoning, they may nonetheless indicate a new need for fallacy instruction: preventing trolls from derailing discussion.  On-line trolls have made available for instructors a new wealth of examples of fallacies.  Students should also learn that the fallacies approach to argument evaluation may be a good defense against trolls, a way to defuse a diversion by naming the problem.  While this rhetorical power of the fallacies approach can be misused, it can also be valuable in dealing with trolls.

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Count Yorck's speech to the East Prussian states on February 5th, 1813 in Koenigsberg", Otto Brausewetter, 1888

Last week Shaun Usher, custodian of the excellent website “Letters of Note” announced that he would close the comments section on all posts.  He writes:

All complaints should be directed towards a section of society to whom the concept of even vaguely civil discussion means nothing. …I simply cannot afford to continue mopping up after the trolls who crawl among us, itching to bring down the tone at every available opportunity.

Usher does not mince words when describing said trolls and their methodology, but I’ll let you read the best parts of the announcement for yourself.

I understand Usher’s frustration very well. Prior to writing this blog I was, for years, a moderator on a website devoted to open philosophical discussion.  This was before the days of the “new media”. There were no philosophical blogs to speak of in those days, so if you wanted to talk philosophy on the internet sites like ours were where you would go. The founder of the site and I, and the other moderators as well, worked hard to create a website that where those who knew a little something about philosophy could interact with those who were new to it, sojourning, or simply curious.  We had a great time before the site caught on.  Then the membership exploded, swollen by trolls, spammers, crackpots, political cross-posters, and bots of every description.  It became impossible to have a threaded discussion a significant portion of which wasn’t overgrown with inanity, spam, and digital graffiti (of the bathroom wall variety, not the amazing mural variety).  Those with a serious interest in the conversation petitioned and complained, and we tried harder to moderate the site.  In the end, however, it was futile.  Nothing we did could simultaneously (a) protect the discussion from its many and varied saboteurs while (b) maintaining the quality of discussion that would make a site like ours worth visiting and (c ) upholding our original vision that philosophy is neat and even non-specialists will find that out if they have a chance to discuss it in a forum with a critical mass of members who know what they’re talking about. Eventually the site crashed under the weight of the flotsam and jetsam that has generally made open-membership sites for threaded discussion like ours obsolete.  We rebuilt it twice before most of the moderators got tired of it and threw in the towel.  In the course of the years that it was truly functional, however, I learned a lot and made some friends with whom I still keep in touch. It wasn’t a bad experience by any means, but it is one that has given me a lot of food for thought. One of the things I’ve thought about quite a bit as a result of my moderating days is how our experiences online shape our perception of the public at large, and how that perception conditions and shapes (or doesn’t) our conception of democracy.

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