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How to Argue on the Internet

Arguing on the Internet usually ends badly because people don't know how to do it. Here's some good rules of thumb to follow so that you aren't a dick.

A small and colorful calendar iconPosted on:May 14, 2023

I’ve been on the Internet since I got an email address from the Navy Postgraduate School in 1993. I remember creating a basic web page with raw HTML and thinking I was so cool for using an “Under Construction” GIF file with a little dude and a shovel.

And I remember getting into flame wars on Usenet about how Turbo Pascal was better than Visual Basic and how Windows was better than the DOS prompt.

Good times.

Over the years, I got into a lot of arguments on the Internet. Way, way too many, really. At first, I wasn’t very good at it, making crazy claims, getting all pissed off, feeding trolls, and generally being a jerk. This carried over into Facebook and other more modern places to have a good old fashioned Internet discussion.

But eventually I figured out that arguing isn’t productive unless, well, you do it right. I used to be a terrible person, becoming insulting, overly aggressive, and constantly putting words in people’s mouths.

Somewhere along the way, thanks to friends and a good therapist, I think I have figured out how to argue well on the Internet.

Here is my advice on how to be and effective advocate for your views on the Internet. I will update this as things occur to me.

General Thoughts

  1. First and foremost, resolve to not be an asshole. Just don’t. Don’t let yourself get pissed off or too worked up. Don’t ever call anyone names. Don’t be snide and sarcastic. Be respectful and polite.
  2. Assume good intent. Start from the position that the person you are talking to is sincere, holds their beliefs sincerely, and that they are reasonable.
  3. Always and only talk about what you think. Always. Never, ever, ever tell other people what they think. Remember, they are the world’s foremost authority on their own opinion, and so you should act accordingly.
  4. Always try to persuade. Stick to trying to convince people. Spend your time and energy saying what you think is good and right and best, and don’t spend anytime telling others that you think their ideas suck. There’s no upside to that.
  5. If you discover that someone us unconvincable, end the discussion and move on. Spending time trying to convince an unconvincable person is a complete waste of time.
  6. Don’t ever make it personal. Stick to arguing the issue at hand. Making it personal is completely antithetical to being persuasive. This might be the most important point here.
  7. This is absolutely critical: Don’t make refutable statements. For instance, there is a huge difference between “You are wrong” and “I think you are wrong.” The former is fighting words, and the latter is irrefutable.

Specific Things to Do and Don’t Do

  1. Always assume that you could be wrong. You just might be. If you aren’t willing to admit you might be wrong, then my advice is to stay away from the Internet.
  2. Respond to what people actually say, not what you think they mean or what you want to believe they said. Don’t make any assumptions about what you think they are saying. Stick to what they actually are saying.
  3. Never put words in someone’s mouth. If you are starting a sentence with “So what you are saying is…” then you are, quite simply, being a jerk. Stop that.
  4. If you are asked a straightforward question, answer it. Don’t avoid it. If someone asks you a question you don’t want to answer, that should give you pause.
  5. Every single policy position has downsides. Know what the downsides of your views are and readily admit them.
  6. Never make statements about what you think the other guy thinks unless they have clearly stated what they think. Ask instead. Get used to saying things like “It seems to me that you are arguing . Is that the case?”
  7. Never be dismissive. Don’t do the classic “You clearly have a lot to learn” post, as you merely come off as someone who has no counter argument.
  8. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, ask for clarification. Don’t assume the worst.
  9. Remember, an apology costs you nothing. Zero. If you find it hard to apologize, then some self-reflection is in order.