Conversational Chaff


Someone in an online community of some kind brings up an idea, and you don't want to process it. Maybe it's too controversial or too well-argued. Maybe it's based on a different mindset from yours, and you just don't feel like bridging the gap. Maybe you feel compelled to "win" arguments, regardless of the idea's value, and to you "winning" means getting the other person to shut up.

If you want, you can throw out ConversationalChaff, and this will probably make the idea go away. ConversationalChaff isn't the act of refuting an idea; it's the act of slowing down the discussion until other participants get frustrated and tired, and go away.

Membership in online communities tends to be highly transitory, so if you do this well enough, the person may actually leave the online community for good, which helps you keep your peace of mind, and reduces the threat of being confronted with difficult new ideas in the future.

Resist the temptation to directly insult your opponents, as that will keep them coming back to defend themselves and to retailiate. Focus on minimizing the perceived value of the discussion, or on maximizing the amount of effort required of those who continue to participate.

Examples include:


Raising Hurdles Obfuscation Misdirection Trolling I Define, You Defend

These tactics are usually more powerful online than in real life, because usually online there is almost no limit on volume of participation, so you can keep coming back 24 hours a day, throwing up an endless flurry of petty arguments.

There are people who do this unintentionally, and there are people who do it intentionally. The effect is often the same either way.

RE: defense against conversational chaff on Usenet:

I've had some success with changing the "Subject:" line of my reply to better describe the meta discussion. This tends to "flag" that branch of the tree in threaded news readers so that readers can tell about where the conversation went meta. Since usenet threads are organized as a tree of replies to messages, I can always go up to a parent node that was on-topic and reply to that, rather than extending the meta-discussion tree. -- JeffGrigg

Also worth a try: Totally ignore any post by the distractor. Post your next message on (your) topic. If the distractor is notorious enough that enough people have him in their kill filter, this may even work...

One technique which I try on Usenet (though I'm not sure of its success) is to tackle the original point of debate from a totally different direction. This should throw the distractor off balance, though I can't tell how effective it is... whenever I try this the loser tends to disappear from the newsgroup.

In case this method doesn't `work', I try to keep my ground, instead of letting the other party lead the discussion. -- TkChia

Re: Check writers' qualifications.

This is an absolutely legitimate form of conversation in this day and age where an estimated >80% of the workforce in IT is unqualified. I can't cease to be amazed of what passes as qualified professional. The unqualified, "ignorant and proud of it" crowds do a constant harm to our profession on multiple fronts, including in on-line communities. If they have an incredibly stupid idea, but they are fanatic enough to pursue it, and hype it, they can do immesurable harm to others. On the other hand if you want to attack their ideas, you'd have to suffer the pain of explaining every bit of basic math or computer science d'a cappo al fine, which of course is irrealizable. Therefore pinpointing their ignorance and lack of qualification is an absolutely legitimate form conversation. It's even practiced in real life in honourable institution: try to publish a bogus but very long article where you claim that P=NP, I'd be surprised if anybody would read even 1 page of it before asking for your qualification.

Certainly people shouldn't pretend to be experts when they're not. But in a field as young as computers, what specific qualifications should a conversant look for?

That's a good question, I'm not sure I can answer for myself: when can I be content enough that I have a decent set of needed qualifications for my job ? We don't know a lot more than we know about building software. However, if we cannot be sure what should be the MiminimumQualificationsForSoftwareEngineers?, the lack thereof is often times easy to spot and bloody obvious.

This is a wonderful page, concisely exposing a host of conversational "worst practices". It leaves me wondering about a ConversationalLens and a focus on conversational "best practices".

One way to provide the opposite pattern is to ImproveTheDialectic.

It may be time to re-read and re-visit this concept. -- DonaldNoyes 20061025

Wow. You know, even performing just one of the items above is a lot of work to undertake just to, well, drop a subject. You actually burn more calories pulling this stuff off than just taking the topic head-on. Why not just ignore the original poster? Or, being honest, and saying, "No offense, but I'm in no mood to discuss this at the moment." It seems like a whole lot less work would be involved.

That assumes that the actor is really interested in a rational resolution. Often, they are more interested in an emotional payoff (looking "smarter", beating the opponent, etc) and so the chaff is used to obscure a losing argument. Or sometimes they are attention-seeking, and prolonging the discussion through any means is the goal.


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