Weasel’s Rules for Arguing on the Internet

Every once in a while, I trip over something that demonstrates acutely the difference between my world view and that of my alternate number on the other team. At the Left2Right blog I talked about in the previous post, I once remarked that it’s sometimes possible to best someone in an argument simply by being polite and keeping your cool…because it drives more excitable people batshit crazy.

Someone from the other side pounced on it instantly, like, “a-HA! There! You admit it! You do try to upset people!” He obviously thought he’d scored some giant point off me.

I couldn’t for the life of me see why. Of course I try to knock the other guy off balance. A public argument is more than pouring two competing sets of facts on the table and seeing whose pile is taller. It’s a contest. A performance. Being an effective arguer and thinking on your feet was once a valuable benefit of a proper education. If you’ve ever had a microphone shoved in your face or conducted a meeting that suddenly lurched ugly, you know why.

What happened? Lefties loved to argue back in the day. I guess they drove dissenting ideas so far underground that they don’t have to defend their beliefs any more. On campus, anyway. They’ll regret that, I’m thinking. It’s no good letting your disemboweling skills get flabby.

I was a serial arguer in school; I made an easy and natural transition to the internet. Many are the happy and productive hours I’ve spent dumping thick black bile on luckless strangers. Though I was a bit of a slow learner; I had my ass handed to me so many times, I had it fitted for a convenient shoulder strap. Eventually I realized that the ‘net is a steel cage match full of a whole planet’s worth of argumentative assholes. You want to make it out alive, you have to work it like a job.

So, hand me down my ass, boys, and I’ll tell you

Weasel’s Ten Rules for Arguing Effectively on the Internet


1. Google everything. I mean everything. The facts, the quotations, the spelling of proper names and all the hard words. Once you’ve found a supporting fact, Google the source — nothing is more embarrassing than when opponent learns your source is a famous whackjob before you do. Run things past Snopes, where appropriate — half the things that “everyone knows” are true were thoroughly debunked years ago and you’re the last to know it. Then Google the other guy’s facts and follow all his links. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve caught someone posting a link that doesn’t say what he says it says. He assumed I wouldn’t bother to check.

2. Don’t post angry. Just like in real life, mad is stupid. You’re sure to sputter and stumble and stick the knife in the wrong spot. You’ll figure out the right spot when you cool off, and it’ll be too late. Plus, if you get rattled, everyone will know he scored on you.

3. Play to the gallery. The guy you’re arguing with sure isn’t listening. When you’re in a dork-wrestling match, you’re wrestling for the crowd. And there will be a crowd. Lurkers are like cockroaches: for every one on its back in the sink waving its legs in the air, there are a hundred more in the walls. Because, check it out — dork-rasslin’!

4. If you screw up, ‘fess up. Immediately and without any qualification. You’re not going to get away with a flat-out, provable error, no matter how small, and wriggling just sets the hook harder. If you hold out too long, you’ll be forever tagged as “the guy who said that really dumb thing that one time and then wouldn’t take it back, which was hilarious.” Which is simply too long for a tattoo. And don’t even try that “haven’t had my coffee, up late last night, dog pee’d on it” stuff. That shit makes you look small. Take your medicine. It’ll be somebody else’s turn in a minute.

5. Don’t be a jerk by accident. If obnoxious is the look you’re going for, fine, but don’t let your jerk flag fly inadvertently. Are you sounding shrieky? Screechy? Are you waving around your credentials instead of making points? Are you talking about yourself a lot? That last one doesn’t apply on your own blog, obviously, where every day is You Day and it’s All You, All the Time at the All About You buffet. Finally.

6. Spelling counts. And grammar. And vocabulary. Yeah, I know, the spelling flame is supposed to be the lamer’s ploy, but you can’t be calling the other guy an idiot in ignorant prose; he’ll hold you down and make you eat it for sure. If your altercation is grouchy enough, you won’t even sneak a typo past him. There are many relaxed and happy places where everybody knows your name and nobody cares if you don’t know the difference between “would have” and “would of” — a flame war isn’t one of them.

7. Sarcasm is a poor excuse for an argument. Sarcasm among consenting adults can be hours of harmless fun, but it’s not much good in a fight. Wielded inexpertly, it makes you sound like your little sister. You know what else sounds stupid like that? That thing where you play with the names. Like Hitlery. Or the Demonrats. Stop it. Stop it. I want to punch you when you get all cutesy and you’re on my side of an argument.

8. Never threaten, it makes you look stupid. If you’re on an anonymous forum, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to get the other guy, no matter how grievously he pisses you off. Everyone else knows that, so you look like a blustering idiot, waving your hams around and hollering. On forums where real names are used, you’re fundamentally just as helpless, but they know who to send the restraining order to.

9. Guard your identity. When it comes to you and yours, ignore everything I just posted and assume you are vulnerable. Everywhere. Even nice conversations can erupt in sudden and unexpected murderous assholery. Maybe your IP resolves to something that would lead back to your employer or your ISP. Enough to buy you a hassle. If you have an odd turn of phrase or a particular word you misspell consistently or an anecdote you tell all the time, Google will rat you out. Don’t cross post or pick the same username/password in places you don’t want connected. I thank my luckyluckylucky stars Google Groups (AKA Deja News) doesn’t hold any archived messages prior to 1996. But I’m sure there will be handy utilities any day now that help search engines ferret your trail across the whole interweb based on your general style. Don’t be saying anything you wouldn’t want to have to read out loud to your mama. And no pictures. I know some people pride themselves on using their real names, but I think it’s dangerously stupid whenever it’s not strictly necessary. There is some pharmaceutical grade crazy out there, and you’re poking it with a stick. Don’t end up like this guy.

10. If all else fails, say something nuts. Speaking of crazy, if you get yourself totally wadded up and hung out to dry, you can always reach way down into yourself, into the crazy place, and pull out something messed up and psychotic to post. Wait, that’s kind of my personal emergency tactic. It probably wouldn’t work if we all did it. Forget it.

Follow these few simple rules, and after months and years and thousands of words and countless nights of waking up at two in the morning in a cold sweat wondering if that rotten bastard responded to your last message yet, you too — yes, you — can win an argument on the internet.

Psych! Hahaha…just kidding. Nobody ever won an argument on the internet.


One Comment

  1. Posted November 15, 2006 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I’ve argued a couple of times on the Internet, but I’ve given it up for mockery.

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