How to argue on the internet

Brad Delong points to a great article by Paul Graham about arguing on the internet:

Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing… The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier…

You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

Mr Graham is ever the optimist, and I’d love to believe him. However, I find it hard to reconcile what he says with the vitriol that one often sees spouted on blogs; particularly partisan political blogs.

If the Robbers’ Cave experiment’s results are to be believed, it isn’t always the desire to make a real point that motivates people to post on blogs. Partisan political blogs definitely have an ‘us and them’ mentality that gives rise to a negative stereotype of the ‘opposition’. Once that happens it seems rational to paint Them in as negative a light as possible. Perhaps this gives rise to a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma: if They can’t be expected to argue in a sensible fashion then why should We? Why accord Them the courtesy of well reasoned disagreement when They aren’t worthy of it?

Maybe the web needs more Paul Grahams to elevate the dialogue and move us to a long-run co-operative outcome. I just can’t see where the personal incentive is to be that person for most who are involved in partisan political blogging.