Losing Friends on the Internet

8 mins read

A friend on mine turns into a completely different person while driving his car. While driving, he blurts out expletives at anyone he deems deserving. In person, however, he’s the type who extremely polite and apologizes profusely at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is the same person, but he’s not alone. Road rage is common, partly because our cars grant us a degree of anonymity, which can turn us into jerks.

The same is true for arguing / discussing online on the Internet. Researchers call it the online disinhibition effect. “We are social people, but online, we don’t have the cues to recognize and really empathize with other people, how they feel or how they’re reacting to things,” said Mike Ribble, the co-author of “The Digital Citizenship Handbook for School Leaders.” The mask of incognito is an enemy of civil discourse.

The antagonism modeled by our leaders is echoed by media commentators and, alas, in political discussions between friends and family. Over-heated posturing with the denigration of differing viewpoints has become a cultural norm for talking about political topics.

We envision the Internet Troll, a person who posts inflammatory, antagonizing content online, as a monster hiding behind the safety of the online world. In reality, trolls can be friends, neighbors, parents – even ourselves. Even if you don’t fit the definition of a troll, which is associated with a deliberate attempt to cause discord, it’s easy to find yourself wading in the murky waters of trolldom. In other words, we all have the capacity to engage in unproductive, meanspirited arguments online that don’t reflect our character in person.

In India, where tensions are particularly high during elections, I’ve seen the dissolution of friendships that went far beyond clicking the ‘unfriend’ button’.

John Stuart Mill, one of the fathers of modern utilitarianism, argued:

So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.

Mill was a proponent of building opinions solely on facts. He saw, one hundred years early, the futility of internet arguments. Our rationales are dangerously burdened by our emotions and sense of identity.

A Fun Fact

Godwin’s law is an Internet adage asserting that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler becomes more likely. That is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds, the point at which usually dampens discussion. Promulgated by the American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s law originally referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions. He stated that he introduced Godwin’s law in 1990 as an experiment in memetics. It is now applied to any threaded online discussion, such as Internet forums, chat rooms, and comment threads, as well as to speeches, articles, and other rhetoric where reductio ad Hitlerum occurs. In 2012, “Godwin’s law” became an entry in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Godwin's law is an Internet adage asserting that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler becomes more likely

Just digressing…

Tactics used by Trolls

  • Sarcasm
  • Blocked listening
  • A fixed belief system
  • Unwillingness to engage
  • Distortion of what the other side says
  • Speaking for the other (“He thinks that…”)
  • Bad-mouthing opposing perspectives
  • Escalated emotional intensity

Friendly dialogue commences gently and they get increasingly adversarial, their language and vocabulary gets louder and the words flow faster. The more anger, the more turn-off it is to others who have to bear it. Also, the more anger, the less perceiving anyone is to the ongoing conversation. Trying to absorb points being made by an “angry someone ” is like drinking from a firehose. Angry folks make it hard for you to absorb. They themselves are in some sort of an echo-chamber and they feel that only their viewpoint is right and others’ viewpoints seem totally insignificant. All he can hear is himself.

Healthy Discussions – in-Person / on-Internet

If you want to enjoy healthy discussions especially when you are talking politics / religion – remind yourself early and often to stay cool.

Keep your ears open so that you can listen for what makes sense in what others say.

Treat what others say respectfully, listening in the best possible light to their differing perspective.

Add your own thoughts without downgrading others’. Keep your tone and tenor “quiet and neutral”.

Avoid arguing, persuading, or stumping for your perspective. Just calmly put your thoughts out on the table. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

If you want to be especially persuasive, opine less and instead ask questions. The best question begins with how or what, e.g., What is the most important factor for you as you decide whom to vote for as President? What’s your understanding of what each candidate would do about that issue? How did you feel about … ?

Asking people to explain their concerns often leads them to reassess more effectively than barraging them with information from your perspective. In addition, understanding their concerns enables you to focus your comments on the information that might make a difference to them.

If, talking on politics, you end up with a conclusion that you both are right, you have earned a gold star. Wear it proudly, feeling good that your political discussion skills will protect your relationships.

India is a charged atmosphere at present. No matter what is the forum – emotions run high. Hence, I have made it a rule for myself: no Internet arguments (especially relating to politics and religion). I have yet to see an internet argument end with two people saying, “Great! I’m glad we had this discussion. We learned so much.” In-person discussions on every topic is a essential and must be carried out with civility.

They say the lottery is a tax on people who can’t do the math. I would say arguing on the Internet is a tax on people who don’t value their time.

Latest from Jottings

Calendar Drift

What is today’s date?  If you answer that question, most likely you are giving an answer…


To appreciate Nehru today, you only have to look around & see the decay of political…

Blockchain: A Primer

What is Blockchain? If this technology is so complex, why call it “blockchain?” At its most…