The art of internet argument and facing up to reality

20 March 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 13 March 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
I’ve been having a long-running and extremely important argument on the internet that the original Alien movie is vastly superior to the stupid Aliens sequel but this idiot in Luxembourg will not admit that he is wrong and it’s driving me crazy. What can I do to persuade him that he is a wrong idiot with a stupid face and a stupid name and just basically stupid?
Movie buff

You have to fly to Luxembourg and meet him in person. There’s a video that neatly illustrates the difference between arguing on the internet and arguing in real life. It shows a bunch of dogs barking at each other through an electric gate that is slowly sliding open. The dogs obviously really hate each other and very soon they will be able to get at each other and then they will all die in a horrible bloody fight. Why can’t they just get along, find some common ground or perhaps one side could just admit that they are wrong? Eventually, the electric gate slides fully open and the angry dogs finally come face to face. Now the real fight is going to begin. But they take one look at each other and they all run away. When faced with the reality of each other, they all suddenly remember that they have something very important to do somewhere else.

I recently rediscovered that arguing on the internet is a very unhappy and unsatisfactory experience, and it reminded me why I don’t get involved in arguments on the internet, and on Facebook in particular. It didn’t matter what facts or well-reasoned arguments were rolled out because neither side could admit the validity or even understand the other side. The discussion quickly stagnated into an endless repetition of the original stance. I was left scratching my head and wondering why the other side didn’t simply admit that they were wrong (obviously, I was right). But nobody ever needs to admit to being wrong in cyberspace because we will never meet in reality.

Arguing over the internet is a new experience for humankind. Since the beginning of time we’ve argued with each other face to face or (as I am doing right now) by writing a one-sided argument. When we argue face to face, we don’t just use words but also our bodies and the very sound of our speech to put across our point of view. We might become convinced by a well-reasoned and passionately expressed argument or have to face the embarrassment of being publicly wrong, but we can also be bullied into submission. Because people don’t actually see or hear each other on the internet, it offers an opportunity to express a point of view with a courage that we might not have if meeting face to face. The internet has created a completely brand new style of human interaction and old-timers like me don’t understand it. I thought that the internet would be a natural extension of the old way of talking but the fact that we never actually meet means that we are not speaking the same language.

I am not too easily bullied in reality but I am easily bullied on the internet. Russia’s state-funded internet trolls have a technique to deal with weak-willed people like me. They are not interested in winning an argument but in dominating the argument. If somebody argues a point on an internet forum that they do not like, then they gang up to make aggressive personal attacks and threats until that person gives up and disappears. Soon the trolls’ point of view becomes the dominant argument. I think we may have witnessed that much the same thing has happened in Malaysia. I am easily bullied by this technique because I get confused. I ask myself: Are these angry people real people ? Is this what most people actually think? I must be alone in holding this point of view. I’d better leave now.

It’s very tempting to imagine that the whole world is watching our interactions on the internet, but in reality, nobody is. When I was having my argument, I thought that the internet workers were desperately shovelling in more coal and dousing the machinery in water (because that’s how the internet works) but they weren’t. In reality,the argument only involved a tiny handful of people, and yet I can never be absolutely sure. And I’ll never be absolutely sure what the outcome would have been if the gate of reality had opened and if we had argued face to face. But I do know that the original Alien movie is indeed vastly superior to Aliens.

Dear Kam,
My wife keeps telling my son that he’s a wonderful singer but actually he is really, really bad. It was very embarrassing when he suddenly started singing The Greatest Love of All at my grandfather’s funeral. She says we must make him confident and encourage him. I think we should encourage him to accept reality.
Augmented reality dad

The most terrifying thing I have ever seen was when I used to watch American Idol on TV (anybody remember when we used to watch things on TV?). At the start of each season of the singing competition, young hopefuls would do an audition. What I found astonishing was that many of them were truly awful but they thought that they were amazingly good and they were astonished when they were rejected. How could they think they were good when the proof was so obvious that they were in fact terrible? Were they stupid? And then I became terrified. Am I the same? Now I have a waking nightmare of being told by Simon Cowell that I am untalented or, even worse, by Paula Abdul that I must keep the dream alive.

I have never been able to work out why the people on American Idol thought they were good when they were actually very bad, and the puzzle haunts me every single day. I don’t think there is any way of ever knowing if you are actually good or not, but it’s surely important to question yourself.

But one story from American Idol does offer a ray of hope. His name is William Hung and he sang Ricky Martin’s She Bangs at his audition. It was bewilderingly bad and yet he managed to turn that embarrassing moment into a short but lucrative career as a terrible singer, performing around the world, including in Malaysia. He proved that it is possible to be successful at being bad, if you have the talent to spot the possibility.

Reprinted with the kind permission of