The 7+3 Deadly Sins Of Argumentation

I love arguing with people online and especially Google+ because I learn so much. The quickest way to adapt is threat, and when your ideas are threatened they either become more robust in your own mind or you get to find better ideas to hold. This goal is muddied by the amateur nature of internet argumentation, although the fact that it is not elitist makes it positively refreshing and interesting. I have tabled here some of my biggest annoyances arguing with people online. I have at some point or another made the same mistakes. The list is not exhaustive and is not meant to be. Maybe I will write a part two one day.

1. Fallacy orgy

Knowing about argumentative fallacies is important. It helps you to see when flawed arguments are used against you and it saves you from falling into a trap of thinking you have lost. However accusing someone openly of a fallacy can be a grave mistake. Many amateurs will not know what a fallacy is, and then quickly look it up. They will then deny the fallacy and accuse you of a fallacy every time you comment. Most of the time they are simply misunderstanding the fallacies. When both sides engage in this the entire original argument gets lost and the whole conversation devolves into a meta argument about what fallacies are. I have found it much more productive to describe the fallacy and why it is flawed without even mentioning the word fallacy. Beginners can understand this kind of reply. I have even been accused of a fallacy fallacy. Turns out they were committing a fallacy fallacy fallacy. Wow!

2. Assuming that your facts are right

This one has bitten me more than once. I read something a while back and the information has rotted in my brain. My numbers are all wrong and that makes it seem like I am lying. Not only that, cognitive biases tend to cause us to remember larger quantities of things that favour our positions. It is always better to check a fact before using it, because a fierce opponent will try to use any inaccuracy to discredit you entirely.

3. Not conceding points when you are wrong

If you know you are wrong you should say so, because your opponent can then adjust to your renewed point. This is especially true if you make a mistake. It is okay to make mistakes. It doesn't mean you lost the entire argument.

4. Not agreeing with things because of who said it

So your opponent says something true but because you are against them you argue with them. You don't realise that you agree with them because you are reading their points as if everything they say will be a polar opposite of your ideas. This effect is much more subtle than it seems, and I have noticed by carefully rereading points made by my opponents that I actually wasted considerable time trying to argue against something I agreed with.

5. Trying to win

If you are arguing to win then I don't want to argue with you. If you are arguing to find the truth I am willing. People who argue to win have made their conclusions prior to even starting, and the irony is lost on them of engaging in an argument when nothing will convince them that they are wrong.

6. Taking abuse

Because online argument is not moderated or controlled some people you argue with will abuse you and insult you. This tends to piss me off and soon I am too emotional to give any reasoned responses. It helps to let them know that you are angry and that you would like to be treated with respect. Don't hold back when expressing your feelings. Feel free to call them names back. You should always keep the high ground when making points, but when you draw the lines of what is acceptable you can be colourful and emotional. After all we are humans arguing. Humans have emotions and that requires mutual respect. If you can't get someone to respect you, refuse to continue arguing with that person and if it persists then block them. We need to spend our limited time wisely.

7. Using fancy ass language

I like english. I like big words, but some people take it too far. Plain old english would do just fine, but they use uncommon words that need to constantly be looked up. Often when I do look up the words they use I realise that they have used them in error. I never mention it to them unless the meaning is so wildly different as to make inference impossible. Fancy words in my opinion should be used in moderation, not only because not everyone is a native speaker (I am not a native speaker), but also because an overdecorated sentence can be hard to read. Misunderstandings shoot up and frankly if you keep using fancy words everywhere you look like a pompous asshole.

8. Assuming that everyone is like you

Some people seem like they start arguments in the middle, all their premises are considered by them to be self evident to everyone else. This results in a constant Q&A trying to figure out how they got to their answer. Show your work! Other people don't possess the same knowledge you do.

9. Check yourself before you wreck yourself

Before bringing up points of argument with others do yourself, and them the favour of arguing with yourself about it. Imagine yourself in their shoes, and try to come up with the best arguments refuting your position. This saves you from making the mistake of thinking "Ah that one is brilliant. I will use it!" and being made to look dumb when it crumbles under scrutiny. This is a hard one in an unprepared debate, and most internet debates are unprepared.

10. Don't assume your opponent is wrong

Probably the most important thing ever in any debate. Be willing to fail, and constantly try to understand the points that others make. If they are really right and you are wrong you need to find the path to the truth as quickly as possible, and not waste time assuming they are wrong without seriously considering their position.


A lot of this stuff works best if both sides of the debate follow the rules. You should still try to follow them though even if the other side doesn't. I know it hurts when you are being polite and conscientious and the other side is insulting and fallacious, but holding the high ground is always better on principle, and your character will eventually influence how seriously you are taken by others.

Good hunting folks!

Free vs Freedom in Online Services

In the younger days of the Internet there was no single social network. There was a combination of newsgroups, e-mail and IRC. All three of these protocols had something in common. Each of them had an RFC specification which meant that you could grab the spec and write some code, and soon you would have a client that could connect to those networks.

The server was the same. Anyone could set up a server or write a new one from scratch if they so wished. IRC servers were set up by casual users and mirrored by friends. Game servers were also set up this way.

What happens today is different. Since the advent of the web based social network IRC has faded into obscurity, but proprietary chat protocols have flourished. XMPP (An open chat protocol) did well but it seems that Google Hangouts is going in another direction. My XMPP client is still connecting to Hangouts, but I don't know how long that will remain possible.

You cannot set up your own Facebook or Google+ server, and you can't build your own clients for those systems in the same way you could with IRC. Within IRC there was no limit to the amount of stuff you could do. In fact IRC is where I learned how to code. I am sure that the kids of today are learning on mobile platforms. That is okay I guess, but it is an alarming trend, because before we know it we will have given ourselves over to Google and Facebook and Twitter and there will be no escape. "I would love to move but all my friends are there" is an interesting new type of problem that was less important when users could easily pick different clients. Most IRC clients allowed you to connect to multiple servers at the same time. You could write bot clients that could do cool stuff for you. This is not so with modern social networking.

How did this situation arise? Well the answer to me at least starts with something that is so simple that it borders on insane. People would rather sacrifice all their freedoms to get something for free rather than getting something amazing for a low price. According to Forbes[1] "A billion users and estimated $5 billion in 2012 revenues translate to about $5 per user. This means Facebook is only reaping an average of $5 per year per user."

So the question is whether you would be willing to pay $5 a year for a social network like Facebook if it was ad free. Wait we can do better than that!

So what if we charge users $10 a year and build a service based social network that provides all the plumbing to connect people and communities together but allow them to supply their own clients and build their own implementations on the platform.

The only purpose of the service would be to provide the dumb pipe and the smarty pants stuff that ensures that there is no data loss and makes sure data can be carried through quickly from one end to the other. What you would end up with is a social service that people pay a small fee to use and are able to use it much more freely than any social network today.

We could once again see young people building bots and having fun with the platform. Different clients with different reasons for existing, and an overall open world that promotes innovation from the tail end.

I know what you are thinking and I agree. There are some valid reasons for centralising. You get to control the medium, you get to show people the same interface, you get to make it a consistent experience, but here is my rebuttal. Software is means to an end. People use software to communicate with others, they use it to be creative or to have fun. Making the software does not make you the owner of the creative work or the conversations that people have. Those are their personal things. If we live in a world run by advertising where everything is expected to be free we cannot be offended when we find out our data is being misused or our privacy is being infringed. We know advertisers want to get in our heads, but we are collectively all too happy to sacrifice our freedoms and rights to save $5 a year.

Can we rebuild the idea of open innovation and reject the ideas of lock in, no matter how benevolent they seem (I Am looking at you Google)? I think we can but we need to rid ourselves of the notion of getting everything for free and start embracing the notion of freedom.