Argument clinic: modes of discussion August 1, 2018 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Discussions on MetaFilter have many modes. Sometimes we use a front page post (FPP) or other MeFites' comments as a prompt for sharing stories or related ideas. Sometimes we disagree about an issue raised in the FPP and explore that disagreement. Sometimes we collectively squee over cute animals. In some cases, the same topic can be discussed in more than one mode, and sometimes a single thread moves between different modes of discussion, or even can carry multiple modes of discussion at once. This fluidity can be a creative driver of conversation, but it can also lead to tension or fights if the topic of conversation is a difficult one. Let's discuss how we discuss on MetaFilter, to keep our discussions healthy and enjoyable!

I'm using the term "mode of discussion" to refer to the content, style, tone, and other elements with which comments in a thread on MetaFilter approach the topic of discussion, irrespective of the actual topic. In my mind, a mode of discussion is primarily about the way comments relate to each other. A single jokey comment is just a joke, but a series of jokey comments that build on each other is riffing. While the mode of discussion lies in the way comments relate to one another, understanding what mode of discussion a thread is operating in and how these modes may shift lies in how the content of individual comments contributes to the mode.

Here is a non-exhaustive taxonomy of modes of discussion I think are common on MetaFilter. For my purposes here, "discussion" is the supertype or genus; discussions are defined as the thing that all MetaFilter threads are, and specific discussions may proceed according to one or more of these modes.
  • Sharing or storytelling is when multiple people present personal stories or experiences that help to illuminate a topic raised by the FPP, or give their emotional responses to it. Sharing can involve relatively little direct engagement between comments; the comments form a discussion primarily by each providing a slightly different take on the same topic, but may use previous comments as starting point or prompt. Here is an example of a recent thread I think was characterized by sharing.
  • General agreement is when one person expresses an opinion or idea, and others respond by expressing the same or a substantially similar opinion. This is an example of a recent thread characterized by general agreement.
  • Disagreement is when one person or a group of people express an opinion or idea, and others respond by expressing a contrary opinion. Disagreement is one of the most potentially fraught modes of discussion, which I think makes it important to analyze a little more finely to understand how disagreements can contribute to or detract from the MetaFilter experience. There are several subtypes of disagreement, two of which we discussed in the previous argument clinic.
    • Simple disagreement is when one person states an idea or opinion, and others state their disagreement without directly attempting to argue against the previous position or necessarily justify their own position.
    • Arguing (or as many people in the last argument clinic preferred, debating) is characterized by iterative back-and-forth as the participants respond to each other's ideas with disagreement. As I use it here, arguing is generally a respectful mode of disagreement in which participants are open to hearing each other's ideas even as they disagree, perhaps strongly and passionately, about a subject they care about. This is a recent thread I would characterize as operating heavily within the arguing mode. (Please note, this is cited as an example of a mode of discussion, not as an opportunity to reopen the debate from that thread here.)
    • Fighting is like arguing, except it is undertaken without respect, and others' contradictory opinions are engaged with only for the purpose of attacking them.
    • Piling on could be seen as a hybrid of fighting and general agreement, in which a large majority of commenters respond negatively to one or a small number of commenters' position or character. Commenters participating in a pile-on express essentially the same sentiment or criticisms as previous commenters.
  • Riffing is when the front-page post (FPP) or other MeFites' comments are used as a springboard for making jokes. A successful riff can be characterized by a series of jokey comments that build upon each other. This is an example of a recent thread characterized by riffing.

  • Explaining or teaching occurs when someone who has specialist knowledge about a topic raised by the FPP or a previous comment weighs in to share that knowledge with the community. Other MeFites may respond with questions, and others with specialist knowledge may join in to elaborate or provide alternative takes based on their experience. This is an example of a recent thread that included an explanatory mode of discussion.
These are just a few modes of discussion I was able to think of off the top of my head, but I think there are many others.

Questions
  1. What are the modes of discussion on MetaFilter that we see happening?
  2. What is the relationship between the content, style, and tone of individual comments and the mode of discussion they promote?
  3. What modes do we want to see more of, and what modes do we want to see less of? And are there modes of discussion that you personally don't enjoy but can see the value in others pursuing?
  4. How do we identify what mode(s) of discussion a particular thread is operating in, or should be operating in?
  5. Can certain types of comment be valuable within some modes of discussion, but detract within others? E.g., when can jokes be helpful for diffusing tension, and when do they seem to trivialize something important?
  6. Which modes of discussion are mutually compatible when they occur within the same thread, and which ones aren't?
The argument clinic
The goal of these "argument clinic" threads is to give MeFites a place to talk about how we communicate on this site when we disagree with each other. My hope is that by having an open discussion in which a range of perspectives on this topic can be freely expressed, we'll all develop a better sense of where other MeFites are coming from when they approach a disagreement.

Previously: arguing without fighting

Planned argument clinics, in no order:
  • when and where to argue
  • good and bad faith
  • challenges in word definitions
  • the role of emotions
Guidelines
I'd like to request that we all try to follow a few guidelines above and beyond the standard MetaTalk norms in this discussion, in order to help it be as productive as possible. Please refer to the first argument clinic thread for the guidelines. As a brief reminder here:
  1. Try to keep this discussion focused and relatively narrow. If new topics arise during the discussion, they probably deserve their own threads.
  2. If citing negative examples, avoid recent ones from MetaFilter that might resurrect bad feelings.
  3. Avoid pile-ons.
  4. Try to define any jargon or MetaFilter in-joke references the first time they're used in the thread.
  5. The perfect is the enemy of the good: if you have something to contribute but are afraid of being judged for not perfectly adhering to any of these guidelines, go ahead and comment anyway. Guidelines are meant to improve the discussion, not stifle it.
Finally, keep in mind this is just a thread on the Internet. If it helps, remember to take a deep breath, and watch a strange sketch before commenting.
posted by biogeo to Etiquette/Policy at 5:37 PM (23 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Just a thanks again to biogeo for the work on these threads and the patience as we've needed to queue 'em up amidst the everything else going on.

I feel like the last one had a lot of useful and thoughtful discussion from folks about how discussions go—and what people variously want from discussion—on MetaFilter, and I really appreciate how everyone contributed to that. Looking forward to another good conversation in here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:40 PM on August 1 [3 favorites]


I'd like some advice on how to avoid derails.

I mean I don't think you can actually forsee how any MeFi Post might derail, (and some derails are delightful and thought provoking!) but the derails where people end up fighting about minutia do seem self defeating.

I don't want to call out any specific posts, but I'd like to give a general example.

Mefi Post states that X was harassed online/IRL by Y.

After a few responses stating that harassment is wrong, and some comments on how to try and fix the systematic problem of harassment on what ever platform/space is being discussed the entire thread gets derailed by 'Lets define Harassment' comments, and then it starts to get all fight-y.

Is there any way around this particular problem?
posted by Faintdreams at 3:16 AM on August 2


If we see a derailed thread, we might attempt to rerail it by ignoring the sidebar and responding to the FPP, or the conversation that had been happening before. I have tried this myself with mixed results, but remain convinced that it's helpful.
posted by heatvision at 4:17 AM on August 2 [9 favorites]


I'd like some advice on how to avoid derails.
...
Is there any way around this particular problem?


The obvious answer is to flag the derails and the the Mod Squad handle them, but part of me would like for people who flag a comment to also put in a remark clearly indicating their disapproval.

I know that that can take courage for some folks, which is totally fine and why it's invisible now, but I believe that a demonstration of public, social disapproval can be useful to guide someone away from bad behaviors and back to site norms, and to remind others of the same principle.

(This is why I give the finger to people who don't use their blinker.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:13 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]


How do people feel about comments that acknowledge they're slightly derailing but that it's related to the discussion?

I'm guilty of doing this here and there. I try to avoid it but is this still ok? Or is that just the equivalent of acknowledging you're engaging in shitty behaviour but not changing the shitty behaviour?

I want to try to be a better MeFite, always improving how I engage and interact with my community. Thanks.
posted by Fizz at 7:08 AM on August 2


I find that I enjoy many of the derails. A bit less so in the more sensitive topics/posts of course. But by gosh some of y'all are treasure troves of trivia or personal experience that leads to some interesting comments.

I'll see myself out.

posted by RolandOfEld at 8:02 AM on August 2 [15 favorites]


I agree with heatvision. For problematic derails (because I also agree with RolandOfEld that some derails are enjoyable) flagging is great, but a visible effort to respond to the actual topic at hand can work. Furthermore, if you recognise someone's attempt at re-routing the discussion back to it's proper track, responding to that comment as a form of amplification may help it stick.

I've flagged a few derails and have been surprised at how quickly mods have reacted. But I'm still committed to my previous pledge and ready to take on a slightly more active role in maintaining the health of the site and I'm comfortable with using this particular tactic. It's non-confrontational but positive.
posted by like_neon at 8:32 AM on August 2


Yeah, as long as they‘re not aggressively tone-deaf(*), I like derails. Basically, they‘re what I‘m here for.

(*) personal pet peeve: comments that make every.single.thread about a non-u.s. topic into a discussion of U.S. politics
posted by The Toad at 8:35 AM on August 2 [8 favorites]


I am in favor of a comment visibly re-railing a derailed discussion if the derail is an obnoxious one. (I find some derails terribly fun and others incredibly obnoxious, and I'm pretty sure that my lists of which goes into which category don't necessarily match up to anyone else's. So I tend to think that mod decisions on whether to rerail a conversation have to boil down to an estimation of the mood of the room as a whole.

I also am a fan of the "flag and otherwise ignore the sidebar and return to a previous point to build on" method of circumventing rerails--don't need to call folks out unless the behavior is in some way egregious. Sometimes we all want to talk about different aspects of a thing, and sometimes the room can't accommodate all of us--so resolving that conflict has to happen on a case-by-case basis.
posted by sciatrix at 9:15 AM on August 2 [5 favorites]


> What modes do we want to see more of, and what modes do we want to see less of? And are there modes of discussion that you personally don't enjoy but can see the value in others pursuing?

I'd like to see more sharing new things people learned from a post. I was bummed that my recent post about Cambodia's national election got so few responses. I tried to encourage that sort of engagement with my first comment, but no dice. (It's still fresh, so jump in! The video interviews are fascinating.)

I'd also like more comments that share other resources that complement the ones in the FPP. That's not quite explaining, because the expertise is external, but you're adding your awareness. A few people did that in my Architects of War post (which also has some great sharing of relevant experiences).

Less of? I'm less keen on long "storytelling" responses that aren't so much about an event, but more along the lines of a personal history. Like things you might share in a therapy session. I've made some (shorter ones) in the past and I always feel kind of regretful afterward. I know others find them more valuable to write and read, so I'll not make a stink.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 9:19 AM on August 2 [3 favorites]


Should we do an argument clinic thread focused specifically on derails?
posted by biogeo at 9:21 AM on August 2 [2 favorites]


I apologise , it looks like my query regards derails has in and of itself become a derail.
posted by Faintdreams at 9:51 AM on August 2 [4 favorites]


I wish that, in addition to the existing comment instructions ("Note: Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site."), there could be a big pair of questions:
What effect do you hope your comment will have on everyone else in this conversation?
What effect do you THINK your comment will have on everyone else in this conversation?
When we're typing on the internet, it can feel much more like just expressing ourselves than the feeling of a live face-to-face conversation, where it's normal to take in cues and reactions from the people in the room. It's easy to imagine you're talking to just the one person you're replying to. Or that you're winning the argument with one zingy insight or opinion.

But what if you were standing in a room, with actual people, faces, in a circle of conversation - would you say that thing that's dismissive of that one person in the group, to their face?

If you were face-to-face with a handful of friends and you knew that some of them were struggling to maintain hope in bleak times, would you go ahead with your confident pronouncements that we're all doomed and there's nothing we can do about it?

Once your words are out of your mouth, what will you see on the faces of everyone in the room?

What effect do you hope your comment will have on everyone else in this conversation?

What effect do you THINK your comment will have on everyone else in this conversation?
posted by kristi at 10:37 AM on August 2 [5 favorites]


I apologise , it looks like my query regards derails has in and of itself become a derail.

I think it's an important topic though, and the discussion around it has got me thinking about the difference between digressions (which seem like they might be a "mode of discussion" under the definition I've proposed here) and derails (which seem more like a change of topic which can happen within various modes of discussion). It's also got me thinking about how that difference can be both context-sensitive (depending on the dynamics of the conversation) and subjective (different participants may perceive the same comments as either digressing or derailing, depending on their perspective). I think it's really valuable to hash that out, and if others are also interested I'm happy to do an argument-clinic-style MeTa focused on that. Or if you'd rather frame the discussion, I'd be glad to see that post too.
posted by biogeo at 10:56 AM on August 2 [3 favorites]


Also, connecting it to some of my original thoughts, I wonder if anyone has any opinions on whether some modes of discussion are more prone to derails. I think what I'm calling "arguments" or "debates" probably are, since people might, in good faith, bring up a related topic to support an idea related to the original topic, but end up derailing the discussion to be about the new topic instead.
posted by biogeo at 11:00 AM on August 2


I think fighty/argumentative threads are just more likely to have comments perceived as derails.

Is this related to the Church of Interruption cultural divide, btw? I‘m COI and I mostly delight in a zigzag of derails...(which I experience as delightfully inspiring, not rude).
posted by The Toad at 11:57 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]


I think it's a mistake to view debates, fights, and derails as things that "exist." Rather they are things that are actively maintained. There's no inevitability here. They don't self-perpetuate. Users choose to perpetuate them.

An off-topic comment isn't a derail. People derail the thread by furthering a branch of discourse that drowns everything else out.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 12:00 PM on August 2 [6 favorites]


What are the modes of discussion on MetaFilter that we see happening?

Dueling Snark

At it's best it's almost like the backroom of a comedy club after a very on night, at worst, sad very very sad.
posted by sammyo at 4:52 PM on August 2 [3 favorites]


. I was bummed that my recent post about Cambodia's national election got so few responses.
A really great poster once told me some of the best threads get few comments. The one you mention is one of those. The content and context of that subject runs deep on a socially historical basis. Plus not a jokey matter though I personally have a cynical view on the matter none- the-less,

I tried to encourage that sort of engagement with my first comment, but no dice.

Totally good comment reinforcing the storyline aspect of all those wonderful links.
Rolling the dice is a good metaphor and I could sidetrack the thought with a comment about Bầu Cua Tôm Cá. But a poster can only direct the conversation so much which seems the frustrating part.

Now, I've seen folks destroy posts from infactual information contained in the FFP links, done a few myself, those are fun and not a derail.
posted by clavdivs at 6:10 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


I feel like a mode of discussion that isn't mentioned above but which does happen here sometimes is something I would call Addition And Expansion. When someone posts about a thing and then others come in and provide other links which provide greater context or depth about the FPP.

I felt a bit disappointed about an album post I made where people were jumping in complaining about the minimalist nature of the post (my album posts were being deliberately minimal) and saying they would have wanted a more in-depth discussion of the album. But then the people making those complaints were, themselves, not saying anything more in-depth or adding anything providing more value to the discussion other than saying they wanted that.

Sometimes MetaFilter does this really well, and a post becomes something much grander than the original was planned to be or hoped to be. But the discussion is literally made by the people commenting, and saying you wish the discussion was different without contributing toward moving it toward that different nature feels really odd to me.

So, Addition And Expansion. It's a worthwhile discussion method that can lead to greater riches for everyone involved.
posted by hippybear at 7:17 PM on August 2 [7 favorites]


I think derails should take into account 1) which marginalized groups are actors in the FPP, and 2) how an issue has been covered elsewhere. The Rapp/Spacey post was an example where issues specific to same-sex sexual assault became secondary to #metoo issues more directly addressed by other FPPs.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:36 PM on August 3


I'd like some advice on how to avoid derails.

Maybe this is obvious, but one way derails get seeded is that we all may drag things that are gurgling in our minds into the comment thread, like baggage or tin cans tied on the back of a car.

e.g. If there's a thread about modern rudeness and someone just cut me off in traffic on my way home, I might talk or rant about traffic rudeness, whether or not that was a good fit for the current theme/tone of the thread.

And I'll throw in an example of me doing this.

Up near the top of this post, there was a mention of listening to others. (A good idea.) What came into my mind when I was reading it was seeing Joan Walsh on TV today and a Trump advocate (Cortes?) interrupted her over and over. It was amazing that she could remember what she wanted to say at all. Thinking about it, I concluded that if I were her, my strategy to get to the end of my sentence or paragraph would be to *not* listen to him at all. Sometimes not listening is a valuable strategy. Seems obvious, but it was a new idea for me.

However, we aren't audible or synchronous on our MeFi threads, so this example of "here's a talking tip" is actually a bad fit for this thread. But it was in my brain and wanted to come out, which is the origin stories of many derails. In addition an 'effective derail' also often contains red meat or rocket fuel or gossip or controversy that begs for moral judgement. Some kind of sizzle to get people juiced up. Or maybe a threat that brings nervous energy to the thread.

/derail
posted by puddledork at 9:55 PM on August 3


What are the modes of discussion on MetaFilter that we see happening?...What modes do we want to see more of, and what modes do we want to see less of?

So let's start with a big claim and work down to how that claim relates to the the questions of this specific clinic.

1) Claim: MeFi is much more ideologically narrow than it used to be. If using shorthand - politically we're mostly between somewhere just slightly right of Clinton, and somewhere well to the left of Sanders - give or take. It's sort of feminist, sort of generally woke, basically 1st world centric, etc.

2) One of the modes of communication that's become super prevalent over say, maybe the last three years is essentially the use of a trump card. This is probably best described by some comments from the previous clinic:

a. I've seen other mefites speak up in a thread to say a particular viewpoint is so sexist or hurtful or threatening to women that it shouldn't even be voiced, let alone debated. Or seen other women speak up in a thread to tell men to stop posting, because they have nothing valuable to add. I sometimes agree, but just as often do not - but even when I don't agree, it's awfully hard to speak up "against" someone who is clearly hurting because of the way their own history interacts with the subject in question. I feel like it sucks the oxygen out of the room, and the net effect is for the person who is hurt the most by the conversation to silence other women, even when they see themselves as just shutting down sexist men. Over time, I think that does polarize conversation, as only the most strident voices (or willing to argue / "call out" other members) remain.

b. I think the general metafilter sort-of-feminist consensus is frequently mistaken, usually oversimplified, and often badly argued even when correct, by people who know the right thing to say, but not why it's right. I say so less than I used to because conscience makes cowards of us all, but I still say so pretty often. in spite of that, as far as I can tell, I still come across as one of "those people" -- the strident hive-mind feminist brigade or whatever. the consequences of dissent feared by self-silencers have not happened to me. and you'd think they would have, I disagree more than is ideal by community standards. I frequently express disagreements with other women when I have them, even on sensitive topics, because I am interested in what they think and what they say.

c. I understand the basis of the argument that "we've heard from those damn skinny people for all of time, it's time to hear the voice of the fat!" But I just don't agree. It's a power shift in the other direction, where I, a fat woman, then get the moral authority to counter-marginalize skinny people and silence them.

Many people of "socially acceptable weight" really want to understand how it is for me to live and exist day to day in a fat body, and even more want to be in on the discussion. And I want to engage with everyone, without people being silenced just because they're not of the same collective identity


3) Another mode of communication that seems to be more frequent now is something I'll call working the refs. This is kind of adjacent to the trump card silencing thing above, but definitely it's own animal. As in, there are definitely comments out there that seem to be mostly intended to be mod bait, or that exist to use the mods as a tool to shape the discussion. This is especially problematic as anyone who's been around for a while knows the mod team itself has historically really not been and continues to not be all that diverse in terms of perspective or experience, especially when compared to the userbase. For better or worse, you can predict with a fairly high degree of confidence exactly how the resulting discussions will be shaped once the mods have been summoned.

4) Both #2 & #3 are super problematic, and directly inform my claim in #1. The intent behind all of it is noble in terms of wanting to make MeFi a better place, but the effect for some time now has been to use those noble intentions in pretty transparent attempts to shift power and consequently silence dissent. And it works - MeFi is a different, more narrow place now (for both better, but also worse).

How big a deal is this? It used to be the case that for any given topic, if you looked at the intersection of discussion of that topic out on the open internet, and the corresponding discussion on MeFi, the MeFi one would cover all the same points, but more deftly, and also have novel insights that you really wouldn't see anywhere else. Because MeFi is so much more narrow now, that intersection is much thinner or non-existent, and changes MeFi from what used to be a must read destination to something that's somehow both rather more on the fringe and yet also often late to the party. Maybe that's unintentional, or maybe that's by design - but the fact that #2 & #3 go unrecognized and unchecked probably directly informs a significant proportion of threads that "do not go well." Additionally, it'd be nice to see them (somehow) recognized and addressed more holistically than simply asking users to not do either, as that would result in some trying to honor that request, and others being unable to resist as both represent pretty powerful rhetorical shortcuts.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:44 PM on August 17


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