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man shouting your argument sucks

Disagreeing Online- Should you engage?

Many moons ago Paul Graham, probably one of the most prolific writer in the startup world, wrote about How to disagree online

He mainly created a hierarchy of disagreements as explained in the diagram below

Paul grahams hierarchy of disagreement
Disagreement HierarchyStyleCharacteristics
DH 6Refuting the central pointRefutes the main point of the argument itself. Highest form of disagreement
DH 5RefutationA great argument that can actually change someone’s mind and requires a lot of work. Typically requires good faith quote of author’s argument and refute it 
DH 4CounterargumentThe fun begins. States that the author is wrong and offers some reasoning. Many a times the reasoning being offered is not for the main argument but something slightly different 
DH 3ContradictionSimply asserts that the author is wrong with no supporting evidence of any kind
DH 2Responding to toneAttacks how it’s said rather than what is being said
DH 1Ad hominemAttacks the author for their characteristics
DH 0Name callingRandom attack on the author

You come across many such examples on a day to day basis. For example here is a recent one I saw, and disagreements(Some real some made up)

Point

Someone posted on the lines of :  while meta’s new social media threads is good , its not yet able to replace twitter.Twitter is still where all political conversations happen. Twitter won

Disagreements

DH0: Cry harder you liar  → Adds no value

DH1: Very telling that your source bought a golden check on twitter and has to now justify the investment → Attacks the source rather than the story

DH2: Weird that you are celebrating this  → Attacks imagined tone

DH3: Not true. I find all my news here. I login 27 times a day  → Anecdotal  

DH4: Twitter has lost most of the advertisers and most of the top news accounts have moved out. Threads on the other hand has 100M DAU. → Twitter might have lost advertisers and the news accounts , but that doesnt actually mean that political conversation is not happening.Threads doing well is also not exactly relevant to the argument. Its a parallel conversation

DH5: Threads has much fewer users than twitter at the moment so surely the volume would be lower. But if you were to look at this report . Threads generated XX million impressions and engagement on political content and on a per user basis this is far higher than what we see on twitter  . If we extrapolate this based on current user growth , threads is likely to overtake twitter sometime end of this year
A good argument that talks about per user engagement and how it is much healthier than twitter. While it is still not better in terms of overall numbers, it’s very likely getting there. This argument does have the power to change someones mind

DH6: Threads has already stated its intentions to not be a platform for mainly political discourse at this and this place. It actively suppresses any political content, discouraging anyone from posting. If threads intention was always to not complete in this space, expecting it to “beat” twitter seems unrealistic
Refutes the whole comparison itself. You win or lose when you are playing and this disagreement demonstrates that threads does not even intent to beat twitter

The main thesis was that while these disagreement hierarchies are not necessarily for picking the winners or losers, they are a great filter for which disagreements to engage with

Over the years, as the Internet has become more and more crowded this problem has compounded by several orders of magnitude .

When can you move the conversation

I believe it would be fair to say that most of us would want to disagree at the very highest level ie “refuting the central point”

This is where I have seen well meaning some people try and move the conversation up the hierarchy. I also have tried this on multiple occasions (Though I agree I also sometimes enter disagreements at much lower levels)

For example if somebody were to simply make a counter argument which many a times is not the argument that you were making, but rather some kind of an adjacent argument, you would try to bring back .
For eg refer to the “counterargument stage earlier”

Counter Argument : Twitter has lost most of the advertisers and most of the top news accounts have moved out. Threads on the other hand has 100M DAU.

Your strategy here could be

  • restating your point: While you are right on advertisers, twitter is still the place for political content .
  • making it narrow and making it clearer. : Ignore advertisers , or news accounts. Let’s only talk about actual users engaging in political conversations . Twitter is still the place
  • Ignoring the distraction and not taking the bait to engage in the parallel adjacent argument.

You assume good intent and try to clarify

You do this in hopes that it moves from counter argument to an actual refutation or refuting the central point. I have tried this as an experiment in multiple disagreements I have had with people online, but I have found that this mostly doesn’t really work. 

The chances of a disagreement moving towards higher parts of the pyramid are much less than moving lower. 

Any conversation that goes beyond two or three exchanges and does not move up will almost certainly fall down rapidly, eventually till name calling. Sometimes it will skip many  steps in between. 

The first few exchanges often determine whether the conversation will climb the hierarchy or slide down it

There also seems to be a point of no return in many online disagreements. Once a conversation crosses this threshold, it’s pretty tough to get it back on track

That point potentially is somewhere in the counterargument stage and within that counterargument itself. Perhaps Paulg should update his hierarchy to split the counter argument stage into two parts

No common ground counterargument: Irrespective of how well the counterargument is put, if it is not addressing exactly what the author initially stated, its no-common ground argument
Eg:Twitter has lost most of the advertisers and most of the top news accounts have moved out

Common ground counterargument : Irrespective of what the counterargument  is, as long as it is talking about the same argument it is common ground. The counterargument need not be convincing, or well worded . Its simply needs to address the main point
Eg: Conversation is mostly driven by news accounts. Most top news accounts have moved out and Wall street journal reports that CTRs through twitter have halved

Updated Paul grahams hierarchy of disagreement

Anything below and including the no common ground counter argument is likely to devolve into name calling with an occasional cancelling attempt . Let’s call it the no hope zone, Or the cancel zone

Updated Paul grahams hierarchy of disagreement
Updated Paul graham’s hierarchy of disagreement

While all arguments can be up-leveled, the probability below and including no common ground counterargument have much less probability of moving up and much higher to move down. It will take enormous patience and effort to up level that conversation, and it might not be ROI positive

Its opposite for the ones above ie: Common ground counter argument , and refutation

Now this is not to say that do not disagree with people or do not engage with people who disagree, but it is likely a more stricter form of “ At what point do you even want to start engaging” . 

Or alternatively

  • If the first few arguments by the person you are disagreeing with are not in the no hope zone, then you can in good faith try and up level it. See where it goes, and if it changes someones mind
  • If its in the no hope zone, either ignore or start collecting your best fun insults because that’s where it is going

 It is still Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement but with a filter on top .

The internet is a vast and noisy place. It’s easy to get sucked into unproductive arguments. But by being more mindful of the quality of our own arguments and more selective about the disagreements we engage in, we can raise the level of discourse.

Happy disagreeing

And now the poetry piece:

This blog is called product and poetry 🙂 And I plan to share some poetry or haikus or ghazals or shers with every newsletter. If it is not in english, I will also give you the meaning

I wrote this on a trip many years ago


कैसे लोग हो गये हैं ना हम
कि नदी में पावं डुबोना भी अब अंजाना सा लगता है


What kind of strange people have we becomeThat dipping your feet in river now feels alien


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