a limit on how far one particular detail can be discussed February 25, 2005 9:34 PM   Subscribe

I have a proposal for political arguments that might make them more productive: a limit on how far one particular detail can be discussed. A problem I noticed on this thread is that nothing gets resolved because the discussion revolves around one minor detail.
posted by [expletive deleted] to Etiquette/Policy at 9:34 PM (62 comments total)

Simply put, what always seems to happen is one detail will become the sole focus of the debate, then someone will focus on one detail of this sub debate, which becomes a sub^2 debate, and the thread continues on in a series of sub^n debates with little if any posts on the broader topic in the later discussion.

I think we could solve this if we made a conscious effort to return to the original topic of the discussion. Side arguments should be put in MeTa, and the thread will continue on as an overall discussion of the broader theme. If someone wants to make a point about one of the sub topics, fine, but once it has been discussed to a length of more than 5 or more posts, perhaps it would be best done in the context of a post which deals with the broader issue.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:39 PM on February 25, 2005


then someone will focus on one detail of this sub debate, which becomes a sub^2 debate

I don't think powers are the right analogy.
posted by Gyan at 9:44 PM on February 25, 2005


I'd say powers are appropriate in terms of overall significance to the original topic.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:45 PM on February 25, 2005


Now let us never speak of this again.

See, see how easy this works?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:46 PM on February 25, 2005


fine, but once it has been discussed to a length of more than 5 or more posts, perhaps it would be best done in the context of a post which deals with the broader issue.

You are proposing that people read a thread that interests them, do a content analysis to the comments, and then do a count of five (or whatever), and then show restraint from adding their 2 cents?

This isn't going to be pretty. . .

I know what it's like to be in a thread that gets permanently derailed - frustrating - sure, but 'tis the nature of conversation.

You can try making a comment something like "back to the main issue...." but that is about as much as you can do.
posted by Quartermass at 9:49 PM on February 25, 2005


I just think that derails, even ones relevant to the discussion, should be carried out somewhere else, like on a subthread here or something. I also don't mean 5 to be some kind of absolute. Usually these derails become arguments between a few people posting many rebuttals to rebuttals. I think it would be good etiquette for people to not carry on a lengthy argument about the minutiae of a conversation in the original thread. For example, the thread I posted essentially becomes an argument between dios and delmoi about the constitution. While this isn't explicitly a derail, it's also not really a discussion of the broader topic.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:57 PM on February 25, 2005


For those who do not wish to wade through the thread, it basically proceeded as such:

Dios brought up a bit from the Library of Congress website about the role of Religion in America's founding, which is something of a reply to the points discussed about Moyer's article. Next, someone challenges him to cite a mention of God in the Constitution, then the whole thread becomes a discussion of a sub point of a sub point between a few people.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:02 PM on February 25, 2005


On this subject, I'd actually like to complement jenleigh and Hat Maui for resolving their sub^2 quibbel in thread after only a minor derailment and without letting it get out of hand.

It was good that they handled this in thread because it allowed them and others who saw what they wrote to all put it away instead of resolving by email and having others jump into it. The second reason that it was good that this was solved in thread is that it prevents a MeTa discussion that might still be going right now.
posted by Arch Stanton at 10:04 PM on February 25, 2005


Well, if it matters any dios got a timeout this morning.
posted by Quartermass at 10:10 PM on February 25, 2005


This is an even dumber idea than thirteen's metaquest thing, but this has the added disadvantage of not even being funny.

Arguments are not supposed to be productive, they're supposed to be fun.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:14 PM on February 25, 2005


This is so cute. Where's my camera?
posted by DrJohnEvans at 10:25 PM on February 25, 2005


how do you propose this be enforced?
posted by crunchland at 10:29 PM on February 25, 2005


Community spirit!
posted by catachresoid at 11:29 PM on February 25, 2005


I think we could solve this if we made a conscious effort to return to the original topic of the discussion.

Dude (if dudekind ye be) this isn't a proposal.

This is a wank.

Cheers, though
posted by scarabic at 1:42 AM on February 26, 2005


It's a suggestion, people. The point is that you read it, maybe agree with it, hopefully take it to heart, minimize it in the future? I personally think it's great when an interesting derail spawns another thread. (eg. the AARP discussion) That way we can find it in the search (in theory) and find, in that new post, a link back to the original discussion (usually). I personally avoid this sort of nitpicking in political threads like the plague, as it's a well-known Rovian strategy to dispose of intellectual scrutiny of actual issues with the opposite. Finally, I get tired of hittin PgDn. Don't you?

stavrosthewonderchicken: Arguments are not supposed to be productive, they're supposed to be fun.

As a generalization, this fails completely. As a statement about MetaFilter specifically, it also fails. This is not Fark. We have values above and beyond mere gratification. You may not agree with it, but that is obviously the case. Why do you think we have MetaTalk?
posted by mek at 1:45 AM on February 26, 2005


This fails. It fails. This is not. We have values. You may not agree. Obviously the case.

It takes more than declaratives to put stavros to bed. Especially when he's right.

His point as I see it: you can't hem in a discussion like this. They have life of their own. Things like research and papers are for arriving at specific knowledge goals. Discussions need to go where they go. That is their purpose.

If we all knew where a discussion should go, we could get there in a minimum of time with a minimum of tangents. There would also be no point in having one. About anything.
posted by scarabic at 1:51 AM on February 26, 2005


We have values above and beyond mere gratification.

How very noble. Hope that works out for you!

Show me an argument that you call productive, and I'll show you an argument that is not so much 'argument' as performance art, and which is therefore either ludic or fundamentally dishonest in terms of the way it's been described.

Coughs are productive. Arguments are not.

(If you want to argue that a discussion might be productive of net good for its participants, I'd be willing to listen to that, though....)

Sloppy speech makes the baby jesus cry.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:58 AM on February 26, 2005


It takes more than declaratives to put stavros to bed. Especially when he's right.

Heh. I argue even better when I'm not actually talkin' out my ass!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:00 AM on February 26, 2005


stravros (wish it was the case): So you believe arguments are never productive? So... are arguments never resolved, or is even a resolved argument is still not productive? Either way I'm confused.

Besides, both of you are straw-manning me out of this thread. [expletive deleted] is not talking about discussion derails in general, but specifically the sort of nitpicking over factual details seen in the Moyers thread. This stuff has little interest for the reader and indeed falls under stavros' "argument as performance art."

Discussions need to go where they go. Fair enough if all of MeFi drifts, but when a handful of users comment themselves silly, well, perhaps they should have taken expletive's suggestion to heart. This post is not to "bugs"; it is not asking mathowie to code our discussions into economically viable directions; it's just asking MeTa readers to avoid being pedantic. And it's backed up with a really, really pedantic thread.

Fair enough, I say.
posted by mek at 2:14 AM on February 26, 2005


BTW, this is the kind of argument that might be found useful, as it allows for the further clarification of [expletive deleted]'s post, at the very least. If we were still debating his use of exponents... I'd be pissed.
posted by mek at 2:18 AM on February 26, 2005


So you believe arguments are never productive?

Nah. I'm just fuckin' around.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:22 AM on February 26, 2005


"Arguments are not supposed to be productive, they're supposed to be fun."

Wow. This is why most of them aren't. Productive or fun.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:24 AM on February 26, 2005


Stavros: Aha. Touche.
posted by mek at 2:27 AM on February 26, 2005


*bows to his worthy adversary*

Time for a drink, I think!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:04 AM on February 26, 2005


Productive discussions about sensitive topics involving people who are passionate about contrary positions are both possible and fun. Much more fun than other varieties of discourse, I think.

But they are delicate things that need a very specific environment. That's not possible on mefi, I don't think.

However, it's worth considering the possibility that a small, committed group of very active members could, within themselves, organize, cultivate, and protect such an environment and by doing so be an active force within mefi moving things as far in that direction as is realistic.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:13 AM on February 26, 2005


Years ago, in conversation, I disagreed with a friend about some aspect of marriage (neither one of us being married). The resulting debate/discussion about the issue took five hours, ending up a discussion of whether humans are inherently bad or good. It turns out this was our point of disagreement, and an unprovable central nugget of contention. When we realized that we were starting from a differing initial assumption, we stopped debating, and then tracked our difference of opinion backwards through our whole discussion (this part only took about half an hour), showing how each disagreement we had had come from this initial difference, all the way to the marriage issue.

It was one of, if not the, best discussions I've ever had. And I realize that if we hadn't gone into excrutiating detail about a certain detail, but instead "decided to stay on topic", we could have gone around and around in circles forever, never agreeing or understanding eachother's positions.

True, for this kind of thing to happen, you need to be having a discussion with mutual respect, lack of anger, and absolute determination by both sides to make no logical fallacies, and to reevaluate one's argument when accused of unintentional logical fallacy. So it's not the most applicable to a public forum like this.

On the other hand, insistence on "staying on topic", instead of allowing the discussion to trace back to the source of disagreements, is like insisting that two people determine by discussion which is better, a can opener or a coffee maker, without allowing them to discuss "better for what?"
posted by Bugbread at 3:30 AM on February 26, 2005


[ep] rather than force others back to the broader debate why don't you just take the lead with interesting and informative arguments? If they are compelling enough, the debate will steer away from the details and back to the broader topic. If the the minor point remains more interesting than the broader topic, then why not discuss it? In any event, what you propose would never be workable without a live and neutral moderator actively involved in each debate to keep it on track. Who has the time?
posted by caddis at 5:24 AM on February 26, 2005


It's called "conversation." If you're bored with a particular series of exchanges in a thread, skip on ahead. Nobody's forcing you to follow every twist and turn. Also, as scarabic said, this is a wank, just like all the other "I hate that people do X when posting/commenting, can we please not do that?" MeTa threads. The vast majority of MeFites either don't read MeTa or read it only for entertainment; the idea that if we solemnly hash out some "reasonable" solution to an alleged problem here it will somehow improve things is silly. You might say, well, there's no harm in talking about it, except that every damnfool pointless thread started because somebody wants us all to hold hands and click our heels at the same time pushes another, possibly more worthwhile, thread into the Archives of Oblivion.

And stavros, I'll join you in that drink, if I may.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on February 26, 2005


the idea that if we solemnly hash out some "reasonable" solution to an alleged problem here it will somehow improve things is silly

i can't think of anything to add to that. i just copy it here because i'm amazed the rest of you apparently don't get it.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:30 AM on February 26, 2005


This is not true. On several occasions, MetaTalk has cured me of insomnia, goiters, menstrual cramps, and a really, really bad case of the claps.

Well okay, just the insomnia part. But still.
posted by DaShiv at 6:53 AM on February 26, 2005


*pours*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:13 AM on February 26, 2005


*claps*
posted by taz at 7:18 AM on February 26, 2005


MetaFilter: Argument as performance art

expletive: Derailing a derail is fairly easy.
posted by mischief at 7:30 AM on February 26, 2005


So what is a "worthwhile" thread here in MeTa, languagehat?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:45 AM on February 26, 2005


It is natural that conversations drift, but as mek points out, members opposed often will intentionally derail them or troll in them. It is Rovian.
posted by amberglow at 8:51 AM on February 26, 2005


What languagehat said. A particular detail may be unimportant and distracting to you, but not to other people. But that really is a personal problem.
posted by c13 at 9:28 AM on February 26, 2005


I can understand where expletive deleted is coming from, and I sympathize with him having a problem with it - but one of the most important aspects of Metafilter is not limiting the freedom of its users to carry on meaningful conversations in whatever manner they see fit.

The only way that this basic value can be preserved while removing the nature of conversations to run amok is by instituting a threaded comment structure as opposed to a flat one. Unfortunately this wildly violates the basic design and functionality of Metafilter and it therefore must be dismissed.

I suppose if Matt really wanted he could make it so that logged in users could select whether they wanted to view comments as threaded or flat, and leave the default view as flat based on chronology, but the amount of backend retooling both in terms of programming and *MAJOR* restructuring of the data structures for both comments and threads would be simply outrageous. Personally my favorite has always been Kuro5hin's dynamic-threaded model, where the comments in response to the parent post are flat filed, and the threads spawning off of them appear as links with little arrows on the side that uses a Javascript hack to expand the sub-comment in question (go to Kuro5hin.org and view a story, then set the Display drop box to Dynamic-Threaded). However, the amount of work required to implement this would be frankly ridiculous for something that would be by default disabled.

Maybe a pony for 5 years from now?
posted by Ryvar at 9:53 AM on February 26, 2005


I should clarify, for those who won't bother to click the K5 link - the javascript hack in question expands the subcomment *without* refreshing the comments page at all. It's really quite an ingenius little feature.
posted by Ryvar at 9:55 AM on February 26, 2005


On this subject, I'd actually like to complement jenleigh and Hat Maui for resolving their sub^2 quibbel in thread after only a minor derailment and without letting it get out of hand.

I'd like to belatedly thank pardonyou? for speaking up, too. It didn't seem like anyone else disagreed much with Hat Maui, so I assumed I'd really (accidentally) stepped in it. I was a little surprised to find myself on the wrong end of a Racism charge--honestly a first time for me. And not a great feeling.
posted by jenleigh at 10:01 AM on February 26, 2005


The only way that this basic value can be preserved while removing the nature of conversations to run amok is by instituting a threaded comment structure as opposed to a flat one.

So what is easier, restructuring the whole site, or just scrolling past the comments you don't care about?
posted by c13 at 10:11 AM on February 26, 2005


c13: exactly my point. If it really became a sticking point a few years down the road when Matt has more time (not likely with the pony-killing baby coming), it's possible to implement it without restructuring the appearance of the site as far as the default logged in user (or non-user lurker) is concerned. But in terms of doing it right now it's an obscene amount of work for something only a few people would probably use.
posted by Ryvar at 10:30 AM on February 26, 2005


Oh, and for the inevitable "Why would it become a sticking point in a few years?" Open signups = more users = more sub-arguments = more scrolling.
posted by Ryvar at 10:33 AM on February 26, 2005


"the pony-killing baby"

On a serious note, I hope I never see this phrase again. ;-(
posted by mischief at 10:50 AM on February 26, 2005


When the baby was first announced there were a slew of jokes about how people were going to whine about it killing all our ponies. I was being ironic.
posted by Ryvar at 10:59 AM on February 26, 2005


Oh well, in that case...
I guess that's what happens when one doesn't keep one's nose up MeFi's ass 24/7. ;-P
posted by mischief at 11:07 AM on February 26, 2005


wow this is weird. Check out this site www.giftmartian.com
posted by metalbeak at 11:13 AM on February 26, 2005


wow this is weird.
posted by metalbeak at 11:13 AM PST on February 26 [!]


No, not really. They have one of these useless MeTa forums every day or two.
Now, was that worth five dollars?
posted by underer at 12:04 PM on February 26, 2005


If I'm in a real conversation with two other people, and we're talking about some constitutional law, and the other person says "Well, I just think abortion is wrong." – I'm not going to pretend they didn't just say that. I'm going to address what they said. That's my personal nature. You aren't going to get someone to change their personal taste for debate style and tactics by posting something in metatalk, and there's no way any kind of "guideline" is going to be enforceable.

Lucky for all of us, though, the internet is not at all like a verbal conversation! I can respond to innane comments by Paris, for example, and everyone else reading the thread can skip over our bickering and continue by addressing something else said by someone else, thus layering the conversation. I've seen this plenty of times in, for example, the latest suicide thread. Plenty of tangential discussions were wrapped in more serious comments, and everything worked out just fine.
posted by odinsdream at 2:19 PM on February 26, 2005


Ah, and please, please no threaded comment display. That really would be completely unwelcome.
posted by odinsdream at 2:21 PM on February 26, 2005


I was a little surprised to find myself on the wrong end of a Racism charge--honestly a first time for ME.

To say you were accused of racism is over-dramatizing being accused of being racially insensitive at worst. And it was a bad call. You used a perfectly acceptable figure of speech.

But then I define racism as overt malicious and conscious bias. Implying people are racially insensitive is a sort of blood sport here--and, as I noted here, so is claiming other people are calling people racist. I don't see any point in making either claim about anyone here. I certainly regret giving the recent impression I was in regards to jonmc. But I also resent people like dios and yourself making the claim I was when I have said otherwise.

We all speak unclearly at times and we all take offense where none is given. I am not a telepath and I tend to doubt anyone else here is, either--to constantly impugn other people's motives are the worst really contributes nothing but ill feeling. Either we take each other at our word and give each other the benefit of the doubt or we constantly trash each other and attack each other with these Have you stopped beating your wife yet ? making-ourselves-right-by-making-other-people-wrong ploys. I prefer the former as much as possible.
posted by y2karl at 2:57 PM on February 26, 2005


Ah, and please, please no threaded comment display. That really would be completely unwelcome.

Even just as a completely opt-in display method assuming MeFi continues to grow significantly over the next few years?
posted by Ryvar at 3:05 PM on February 26, 2005


Even just as a completely opt-in display method assuming MeFi continues to grow significantly over the next few years?

The problem with threaded comments is that it segregates everyone into their own little private conversations, so it will affect the thread as a whole even if you personally choose not to view it that way. Instead of viewing one conversation, you'll just be viewing a bunch of sub-conversations flattened out into chronological order, which simply won't retain the wholistic feel of a metafilter thread.

As others above said, sometimes what seems like a tangent turns out to actually get you much closer to the heart of the matter. And sometimes it just turns out to be an interesting tangent. If enough people are interested in the ostensive on-topic topic, then the conversation surrounding it will continue. Threads are certainly capable of being multilayered, but I personally like that they're multilayered in a self-conscious way, ie, you know which tangents are going on, you can respond to all or just one of them, and you notice the ways in which they do or don't relate to each other.

In a threaded conversation, the "meta" is lost.
posted by mdn at 3:33 PM on February 26, 2005


Threaded conversations would suck.
posted by graventy at 3:54 PM on February 26, 2005


I'm not saying that I don't think threads should evolve, or anything like that, I am just tired of people who inentionally focus on one minor detail in an effort to "win" that argument. I'm not saying we should institute some policy to stop this, or anything like that, but rather that perhaps it would be considerate to avoid doing this to the point that it dominates and derails the thread.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:54 PM on February 26, 2005


Even just as a completely opt-in display method

Well, bear in mind that once it's available, some folks will change their behavior, perhaps posting even more long, interminable copy-and-paste diatribes. Once the ability to view in threads exists, some will take it as a free ticket to blabber away and impose it on others to compensate (quit complaining! just turn on threads and shut up!). I'm not arguing one way or the other for or against the feature, but I'm just saying that nothing's ever completely opt-in. You're presenting it in a 100% harmless, totally additive light, but it doesn't necessarily always work out that way.
posted by scarabic at 4:16 PM on February 26, 2005


Yeah, threaded conversations make a huge difference, and in ways that I think would be for the worse of MetaFilter.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:56 PM on February 26, 2005


True, for this kind of thing to happen, you need to be having a discussion with mutual respect, lack of anger, and absolute determination by both sides to make no logical fallacies, and to reevaluate one's argument when accused of unintentional logical fallacy.

It sounds like the sort of all mightier conversation you can have in college or with a friend just met--I suppose those are easier because there's this enormous predisposition to treat the other with respect and not nearly enough familiarity to breed contempt. I have been thinking lately that MetaFilter reminds me of what a friend once said about going to work at the same job for decades--The people get to know you as well as your own family and tend to treat you just as shabbily, having pigeon holed you ahead of time and written off anything you might say as being just more 'Well, there he goes again, yada yada yada...'.

I think, too, it's very hard to reevaluate one's argument when accused of unintentional logical fallacy here because it's as hard to back down or back off when called on something as it is easy to take offense and resent every little petty slight, poke and gratuitous jibe another person might take or have taken in the past.

Then there is the whole thing of projection. If someone bothers you, it almost always comes from they're doing something you do and hate yourself for doing, whether you're conscious of it or not. One of the hallmarks of the beady eyed grudgeholder, say, is to accuse everyone on his or her personal shit list of being a beady eyed grudge holder, for instance.

And then there is human nature--we allow ourselves so much more latitude than we do others--simply thinking well, I'll slack off and be nice after I get this last little dig in at that little prick. It's like being an alcoholic who's going to quit drinking after finishing the next bottle... And as a consequence, the paranoia that other people are out to get you, to trip you up and make you look like a fool is pervasive.

Ah well, it's always easier to be wiser for others than for ourselves. As far as new features, feh. It's already getting too complicated here as it is. Put those ponies on the pill.
posted by y2karl at 5:34 PM on February 26, 2005


I wouldn't say threaded comments would change MeFi for the worse, but they would certainly change MeFi substantially.
posted by mischief at 6:09 PM on February 26, 2005


Y2karl: True, which is why I added "So it's not the most applicable to a public forum like this." We're stuck between a rock and a hard place: discussions/debates will seldom get anywhere unless we have the honesty and humility to have the kind of debate we do with good friends, and yet, as you point out, that's not really possible here.
posted by Bugbread at 6:39 PM on February 26, 2005


Well, bear in mind that once it's available, some folks will change their behavior, perhaps posting even more long, interminable copy-and-paste diatribes. Once the ability to view in threads exists, some will take it as a free ticket to blabber away and impose it on others to compensate (quit complaining! just turn on threads and shut up!). I'm not arguing one way or the other for or against the feature, but I'm just saying that nothing's ever completely opt-in. You're presenting it in a 100% harmless, totally additive light, but it doesn't necessarily always work out that way.

Actually you've convinced me that multiple viewing modes is a bad idea. I agree with you that in retrospect my suggestion was a bad one.

However, I still wish there was a way for someone to somehow start a tangential subthread in reply to any given comment in such a way that it is not immediately visible other than perhaps a [discuss - 35 replies] link next to the [!]. This would allow people to post flat like they always do right now, but if someone wanted to discuss a particular comment further or debate a specific they could explicitly choose split off the conversation of that point. It would remove a lot of the "GYOB" and "TAKE IT TO EMAIL" problems around here.

This is all just me trying to think about ways to solve this basic problem, btw, because I've always been interested in the various viewing models employed by web forums. I think this is a generally good conversation to have regardless of whether Metafilter ever adopts a different model or not.
posted by Ryvar at 8:25 PM on February 26, 2005


It sounds like the sort of all mightier conversation you can have in college or with a friend just met...all mightier should read all nighter.

Evil spell check--here I thought I was clicking on Ignore.
posted by y2karl at 11:26 PM on February 26, 2005


i'd like to thank y2karl for pointing out that at no point did i say anyone was racist.

i made a prejudging, incorrect statement ("that's all i need to know about you") and retracted it and apologized for it. jenleigh didn't even acknowledge that fact.

for jenleigh to continue to bray about how she was charged with racism is disingenuous at best (especially on her userpage), and at worst, claiming a false victimhood.

furthermore, she opines that "nobody much disagreed with Hat Maui" except her savior pardonyou?

the whole reason i retracted what i said was from the reaction of other reasonable people to my assertion (that she should have thought twice before using the term "boy" even with "golden" attached) as totally incorrect.

in the states we have people who gin up false victimhood and exaggerated rhetoric all the time. they're called republicans.
posted by Hat Maui at 5:03 PM on March 1, 2005


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