What I've Learned From 5 Years of Arguing on the Internet

I can still remember my first internet argument. It was on Usenet, when I was 14 or 15, and it was over some finer point of Doctor Who lore, like how exactly the Chameleon Circuit was supposed to work. I posted an impassioned rant, and then watched in amazement as people started sending their responses. From Amsterdam, from Hong Kong... all over the world, people were telling me how wrong I was. I was totally hooked.

It's hard to believe that for the past five years, I've gotten paid to send my rants and weird ideas off into the world, and get passionate responses back. Here's everything I've learned from five years of internet debates.

Top image: Batman vs. Snake Eyes by Rags Morales.

For as long as I can remember, I've been someone you wouldn't want to invite to your party unless you want to subject people to a heated discussion of Star Trek: The Next Generation or the novels of Iain M. Banks. One of my earliest memories is of arguing on the schoolyard over who was cooler, Batman or the Doctor from Doctor Who. (I pointed out that the Doctor has two hearts, to which the other kid replied: "So does Batman!")

So this gig, getting to be a loudmouth here at io9, has been a dream come true.

A big part of the fun of pop culture, and especially geek culture, is the debates. The internet lets us have those debates that we used to have at conventions and comic-book stores in a much wider forum. And in the process it's deepened our relationship with the stories and ideas we love. From day one at io9, we wanted to be a part of not just covering geeky topics as news, but also helping to start intense conversations by sharing our opinions.

What I've Learned From 5 Years of Arguing on the Internet

Part of what makes geeky arguments so much fun, of course, is the low stakes — we're not doing brain surgery, and nobody's going to die if we say the Enterprise is neater than the Millennium Falcon, or vice versa. Plus I can never prove that I'm right or you're wrong, or vice versa. And yet, these arguments, cumulatively, really do matter in the long run, because they get into topics like what sort of heroes we look up to, and what sort of future we want to build. Like pop culture itself, they connect to the world we live in. And discussing geek culture inevitably shades into important conversations about science and progress. Image via Teefury.

The great thing about doing io9 has been all the ways we've gotten to share ideas and points of view. Not just listing the coolest space pilots, but also holding pop culture to a higher standard than just "did it kill a couple hours?" Debunking junk science. Giving writing advice. Explaining why Avatar is a white person's wish-fulfillment exercise. Poking fun at weak storytelling and cliches. Sharing what we learned from being bullied as kids. Explaining why the future will be weirder than everyone expects, but also more like the present than many of us like to imagine.

A Strong Brew

We've always wanted io9 to be a strong brew, like your mama's bathtub liquor. We've never wanted the site to be a glass of warm milk. I've said many times that if you don't sometimes come away from io9 violently disagreeing with something you just read, then we're being lazy slackers. If we're just dealing in received wisdom or spouting opinions everybody already subscribes to, we're not digging deep enough.

What I've Learned From 5 Years of Arguing on the Internet

At the same time, we've never played devil's advocate or dabbled in contrarianism. People can tell if you're saying shit just to get a rise out of them. The best opinion writing comes straight from the gut, hopefully filtered through a fair bit of reflection or offline debate beforehand. Also, we've never labeled our opinions as opinions, because we assume you're smart enough to know that "Tron Legacy sucked" is an opinion and not a statement of fact. And if you disagree — which many people do — then you can tell us, and we'll listen.

And honestly, we couldn't be nearly as outspoken if we didn't have some of the smartest fucking readers on Earth. It's not at all unusual to scroll down to the bottom of a rant on io9 and see discussions that take the topic to a whole new level. I've been insanely grateful to know that whether people agree or disagree with me, the conversations will be rewarding, and sharper than Wolverine's claws.

A rant ought to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one, and I live to see people tearing my ideas to shreds.

At the same time, I've definitely written things I regretted afterwards. Like that piece about atheism and science fiction a while back — that was a case where I hadn't fully thought through what I was trying to say, and I wrote something kind of half-assed, that hurt people who already felt marginalized and under assault from mainstream culture. (And in retrospect, a lot of what I had been reading as "smugness" from a few of my fellow non-believers was probably more like anger at that marginalization.) I'm sorry about that.

But there have also been times I wrote things, and the commenters wound up convincing me I had been completely off base — and I was still glad I wrote those things, because the discussion was 100 percent worth it.

Everything is Important

Our dreams about the future help to shape the future. Our heroic fantasies are about the sort of people we aspire to be. When laypeople discuss science, it can indirectly shape the way our society approaches big scientific challenges. When we hash out our ideas about futurism, we're also thinking about what we can do to create the future we want to live in.

All of these things, from pop culture to politics to science to futurism, blend together and influence each other. An argument about one, inevitably, is an argument about all. Yes, including whether the Doctor is cooler than Batman. (Which he totally is.)

So there are no trivial debates. And there's never a good time to be timid, or to hold back for fear of being wrong. There's no such thing as over-analyzing things — see Moff's Law for more on that — and there's no such thing as being too political or asking too many questions.

Over five years of working at io9, I've learned to respect the power of these debates, and the fact that none of them is ever settled. I'm looking forward to many more smackdowns to come.