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Illiterate Literacy: What I Learnt About Message Boards

The Internet, and Internet message board forums in particular, can seem like a mentally stimulating place to hang out on. However, I have recently reached an epiphany about message boards, and that is that it's simply too hard to for people to get a point, even a seemingly simple one. This idea begins there and ends at the outer reaches of human intelligence.

How these tragic little debacles get started.
Expand: What I Learnt About Message Boards

Much of my life, from my adolescence and the entirety of my 20s, was spent on hallowed boards throughout the Internet (and dailup Bulletin Board Systems) bickering with strangers. The emotional pull! The drama! The festering feeling in my gut that, by God, I have to show that poor deluded son-of-a-bitch where he went wrong in life.

With age, however, comes wisdom. Recently, I realized that there was something funny going on with message boards. Under really close examination, the participants of most flame wars actually were in agreement, and they were mostly arguing over how they thought the other party was saying something else entirely. Even those who were not directly involved in the discussion would attempt to support a side with comments that actually supported the other side or had nothing to do with what was being discussed at all. A vast majority of participants had no idea what anyone was writing.

The emotional pull! The drama! The festering feeling in my guy that, by God, was completely unjustified.  What we have on the majority of message boards is a failure to communicate. The problem is many-fold, and to try to generate a list in one sitting is likely to not produce a complete and all-inclusive list. However, here's some of the more obvious things that come to mind that have lead to this situation:
  1. The simple limitations of language.

    The English Language has over 300,000 words, about three times as much as most other modern languages.  Yet, each word fails to hold meaning in itself.  Words are an abstraction, we say "tree" but the word does not encapsulate a specific tree down to every single knothole.  Sometimes, the differences between abstraction and reality trip us up.

    Even a minor syntax error can be a major hurdle to communication.  Here's a story where a faulty comma was responsible for $2.13 million dollars in damage. This is just one example of a plethora of ways that language remains imperfect for conveying absolute meaning of a thing.
  2. Most people simply don't make time to read.

    Language is a tool we use to try to convey meaning, but it assumes that there will be two earnest participants.  A writer does his or her best to convert ideas into words.  The reader does his or her best to convert the words back into the original ideas.  The writer usually has a firm interest in seeing themselves represented correctly in word form but the reader neither has the time nor motivation to understand what was written.

    The Internet is big, far bigger than any forum reader has time for, and so they will not bother to read entire posts.  Internet usability experts such as Steven Krug will recommend everything from eliminating unnecessary words to cutting what you've written to a quarter of its original size.  Even then, I know what I write won't be read by many people because who has that kind of time
  3. Misinterpretation is easy.

    Lets say our audience did bother to read what we wrote. As modern Western thinkers, we like to believe that a clear, properly ordered sentence can be universally identified as having the same meaning to everyone. However, as we bridge the gap into postmodern thinking, we are coming to realize that the reality is actually the opposite: Everyone will interpret what they have in front of them differently based on their own life experiences.

    It's cognitive psychology in action. It's not just "stimulus" and "response" anymore, now there's a "belief about the stimulus" in between. What's read is the stimulus and the reader's beliefs about the stimulus will radically transform their response. It does not really matter if that's what you meant to write or not, what the reader believes they read is all that matters to them.

    For example, lets say you're skimming the net and you come across the sentence, "Black people should not do road construction work." The wheels in the head start turning and, before you know it, you've written a 95 page dissertation about racism.

    Yet, what you read was referring to studies done by the American Cancer Society that indicates that people of African American descent are actually particularly susceptible to the benzene ring aerosols released by freshly paved roads. Suddenly, the 95 page dissertation should have been about why people's heath concerns should not deny them employment.

    The keyword here is context, and it's quite easy to lose when you don't take the time to read and comprehend what you're reading.
    It's incredibly and unexpectedly easy to misinterpret a sentence. You might be thinking to yourself, "Well, just be more specific then, so these little mistakes don't happen." However, it's not that easy. To prevent this, you would need to know how every single reader is likely to interpret it, and that would require an understanding of their life's experience you simply won't have.
  4. Misinterpretation is often deliberate (albeit more often unconsciously so).

    Upon discovering you have been misinterpreted, you may attempt to expand your single sentence into several supporting paragraphs. The bigger the block of text you've written, the more supporting angles you have to prevent misinterpretation, right? So you try... and discover that the more sentences you've written, the more room there is to misinterpret what you've written, and you've made no progress at all.

    It's not your fault: you've been nit picked. Nit pickers, people who read simply to find the one sentence that offends them, are not uncommon on today's Internet message boards. Perhaps they're doing so maliciously, as a very subtle troll that even escapes many forum administrators, but more often than not they're programmed not to agree with you and will latch on to the finest detail they can find in order to do this.

    How they become so programmed is because often, though especially in heated issues such as religion, people have a deep emotional stake in supporting their side of an argument. As a result, they will do everything creatively possible to misinterpret you. They can't help it - what you've written is just plain incompatible with their world view. This is to say nothing for simple Sophomorism - they think themselves smart for being able to do something as mind-numbingly simple as ignore most of what you wrote and creatively reinterpret what's left.

    Once it is clear the opposition has an emotional commitment to support a side at all, you might as well pack it in. When emotions or other brain chemistry are involved, to understand what you've written, clarity is not enough. Instead, you would require something that fundamentally changes the way they think. Something like therapy or the wisdom that sometimes comes with age. Don't be surprised if you're pursued when you try to break things off - that's just how heavily emotionally invested in it they are.
Where I used to sit on message boards and bicker for hours with somebody, trying to get them to see things my way, I now realize that this endeavor is simply pointless. For me to generate total understanding in someone with words alone, I'd likely need to overcome so many hurdles I would better off hoping for divine powers to facilitate my communication.

When in doubt, use an emotional appeal like a cute cat picture. You won't prove anything, but the person you're arguing with more likely to understand that than any words you've written.

The personal growth in accepting this realization is great. Applied to others, away goes all the stress of trying to convince them of anything. When I apply this lens to myself, I realize that I am also susceptible to these limitations as any other. It's okay if people say I'm clueless or deluding myself: I am, if only because I've wasted my time doing the impossible, and that is surely delusion.

The Internet has become the focal point of the information age, a beacon of what we can accomplish if we gather humanity's knowledge and put it up for all to access. However, in doing so, we're coming to grips with the very fabric of what we call information and how we communicate it. We're bumping elbows with our own human stupidity, how far we really have come since we descended from the trees, and it has not been very flattering.

-- Edit: 3/21/10 Revised and updated based off of current experiences.
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