potatoes

This is just a straightforward fact: whenever two or three people are gathered together, they start talking, and sooner or later they find something to argue about. One says “Twin Peaks” was the best TV show of all time, another argues for “M*A*S*H,” but before they come to blows “The Sopranos” fan steps in, and all we’ll ever find of their bodies is bleached bones.

It doesn’t even have to end badly – disagreement is good. It jolts us out of our habitual mindset, shakes things loose, and with luck we learn a little something. Even when people don’t disagree so much as not know one way or another – the back-and-forth of discourse, floating an idea and having someone shoot it down or maybe, maybe build on it to make something new – is how an awful lot of discoveries get made. Science is just arguing where the facts appear at the end and no one gets put in an acid bath unless they’re a particularly cheeky experimental specimen.

So with all this being such an important aspect of our civilization, thank God we have such great tools for experiencing these arguments when they occur online – I can just fire up my computer, point it at say the San Francisco gentrification problem, and there it all is – the facts and the figures, the reports of the riots and petitions, the satirical piece by Brian Goldberg and all the hate mail it generated, Jason Calacanis’s rebuttal and all the hate mail that generated – all pulled together in one place.

Oh no wait. That place doesn’t exist, because we don’t live in a bizarro world where context and debate is just as important as getting something out there dammit, and where the Internet is run by librarians. We live in the real world, and sometimes that sucks.

There was a point where it looked like we were going to get a reasonable half-way house. A point where the tools we were building seemed to be making things incrementally better rather than failing to keep up with the growth and change in usage. In the beginning, there were blogs.

Obviously that’s a lie. In the beginning there was a guy shuffling up to his friend while the elders started to invoke their gods, pointing out that old Goat’s Beard had missed out the bit with the rattle again, and wasn’t that a really important bit? And then later his friend said yes, but the ceremony worked anyway, so maybe the gods had nothing to do with it, and they could just light the damned fire already and get cooking. Then a couple of weeks on, the first friend said okay, let’s try it, just don’t say anything to my dad, because he’ll go crazy. And when they didn’t die of any god-related calamities they told someone else and suddenly the world got smaller as we understood more of it. But let’s skip forward to blogs.

As blogging evolved, interesting ideas like Trackbacks appeared, where one blog entry could know that another had linked to it. One piece could now show replies, corrections, counter-arguments – from across the entire Internet. Not to get all Anil Dash, but as we’ve moved over the past few years towards social platforms over things like self-hosted blogs, we initially threw a bunch of that utility away. We are now at the point where this is starting to come back again – various tools exist to pull in tweets and Facebook comments under an article, and conversely Twitter will now show which articles have been written about a tweet. But still many, many of these connections slip by unnoticed.

We’re not going to agree.

And sometimes this is because someone is wrong – not just a difference of opinion, but someone actually differing from fact. This happens a lot on social platforms where sharing and re-sharing are a very low barrier, and most of the people involved aren’t deceitful or malicious, simply misled. Long-debunked theories or carefully-selected anecdotes being trotted out as undeniable truths. Archive photos being touted as breaking news. A fictitious quote being consistently misattributed to a great statesman who really deserves better (such as people remembering an actual quote of his). All this serves to do is to keep us locked in the mistakes of the past, condemned to call down the gods for every hot meal.

Imagine if, instead of just a link, a preview and your friend’s brief message, you also saw a second article preview: this image is fake. Not actually true. She never said that. Sure, it would take all the fun out of retweeting falsehoods; and yes, it’s probably going to have to take all the speed out of retweeting falsehoods, as well – it’s difficult to see how you could cram all that effectively into an interface the size that Twitter has now, particularly on mobile. But sometimes, low barriers are actually a bad thing.

We’re not going to agree.

Sometimes this is just because we’re argumentative, and sometimes people get argumentative because they disagree about something that’s important to them. A lot of this happens on Twitter, even though Twitter is a terrible tool for arguments. (Facebook isn’t particularly better, however.) You can’t refute a point in 140 characters, but you can call someone a cock whore, so it’s very easy for Twitter arguments to devolve into Twitter fights. And even those Twitter isn’t particularly good at: If you are an onlooker, coming to an intense Twitter fight after the fact, playing it back and figuring out what happened is painful and difficult. It’s rare that one tweet’s replies contain the whole of a fight, and damned if you can find it anyway from the first tweet you do see. (And then if someone gets angry about one small bit, perhaps completely out of context, it can kick off again.)

About the best you can manage in a single tweet is to link to an article that you think refutes the original point; but life is complex, and nuanced, and if we could get through serious debates with predefined responses, then politics would be conducted principally through the medium of flashcards, indexing the Dictionary of the Quotations. “To my honorable friend: Eastwood 359:5.” “Mr Speaker, I move Bolingbrook 172:71.” Nothing would get done, and the entire thing would more and more resemble something written by Aaron Sorkin. “Your Highness, we beseech you on this day in Philadelphia to bite me, if you please.” Nothing gets done that way.

We’re not going to agree. And we seem pretty bad at disagreeing, too.

So what can we do? We can do little things such as provide context when we write a new piece – journalists often do this anyway, but we could probably make the tools easier. We can do bigger things, pressing on with pulling in responses from other platforms and sources, and see what else we can put in there – it’s increasingly common to show “recommended articles from around the Web,” which would be an interesting place to link opposing articles (although many of the articles are paid content, so the economics gets interesting).

On the really grand scale, we could build entire new tools to help us track and navigate big issues, and put in the time and effort to ensure that everything is linked there properly. Instead of building plug-ins for websites, plug-ins for browsers could pull context for whatever you’re reading. Of course, this isn’t a new idea: there are extensions or apps that show contact information in an email, fill a browser overlay with “similar sites” and other information about what you’re looking at. There’s even an extension that adds “politically progressive information” while browsing.

We can imagine the tools from the bizarro world, and we can try to build them; and your imagining of that world will likely be different to mine. We’re not going to agree, after all. We just have to have enormous vision, and the unwavering arrogance that we can pull it off.

Maybe we can at least agree that this industry has no shortage of that.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.]