[OT] Mailing Lists: Good for argument, bad for discussion

Dave Smith dave at thesmithfam.org
Sun Jun 29 11:49:31 MDT 2008


My wife has recently gotten into email discussion lists. I thought these 
lists were only for geeks, so I cringed at the thought. Watching her 
participate, I was surprised to notice several similarities to geek 
mailing lists. First, off topic threads tend to get more heated 
attention than on topic threads. Second, mailing lists are great for 
arguing, but bad for discussion. Both of these things I would have 
expected to be unique to the geek community, but I was wrong. Let me 
give you a true example that illustrates both phenomena, because it was 
(to me at least) quite entertaining.

My wife commented, using hyperbole, that she would rather feed her 
children Twinkies for breakfast than allow her children to $BEHAVIOR. 
Rather than discussing $BEHAVIOR, a few posters latched on to the 
Twinkies, and went on to argue about breakfast foods and eating habits, 
totally off topic from the *already* off topic thread. It was an 
eye-opener for me. It made me realize that mailing lists are a great way 
to argue, because whole threads of argument can spawn from a side 
comment. This simply does not happen in face-to-face conversation. Had 
my wife made the same comment face-to-face, I struggle to imagine a 
scenario where the whole conversation would shift to eating Twinkies for 
breakfast rather than continuing to discuss the original topic. It may 
even be considered rude or overbearing to disregard what she had said 
and shift the topic away, though I don't exactly have the best social 
skills, so buyer beware.

I think this phenomenon happens because it's easy in an email to trim 
away things you don't want to respond to, and focus only on the part of 
the email that you disagree with. It's easy to believe that someone 
disagrees with you 100% because they chose to respond to the 1% of what 
you said that they disagreed with, even if that 1% was totally 
tangential to your main point (which the responder may *did* agree with, 
but you'd never know). I'm not sure if I like or dislike this because 
frankly, it'd be a boring list if everyone just responded with "me too". 
However, I do think it encourages argument and nit picking rather than 
good old-fashioned discussion.

What are your thoughts?

--Dave



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