On the Limits of Online Communities and Online Discussions

Woodpecker's first computer. At that time, internet discussions was not something to worry about, haha!

Woodpecker’s first computer. At that time, internet discussions was not something to worry about, haha!

Ah, the internet!
What a wonderful world, what a wonderful tool!

You can obtain basically any information anytime you want, you can watch movies and idle away whole days there. You can feel part of the crowd and of a community without ever leaving your sofa.

You can have hundreds of friends there.

And yet, something is missing.

I realized that very clearly the other day when having some discussions on various internet channels.

Basically, I think there are two types of discussions in general:

(1) A “rational” discussion / talk

That is you and your counterparts exchange information and facts on a given topic. Often a topic where nobody or at least some participants do not have too much knowledge about at this point of time. And they are happy to receive additional information within the “discussion”.
Example: Discussion how to live more frugally. How to save petrol, where to buy cheap etc.
Here, mere facts are exchanged that will not involve the deeper and complex levels of your and the other’s personality.
It is pure rational exchange. And writing is a perfect tool for rational exchange. Thus, this is where the internet excels and should be used for.

But there is also the second type of discussion / talk:

(2) An “emotional” or “personal” discussion / talk

This is a discussion where typically at least one (mostly even all) participants have their feelings, their values, their concept of life, their view on the world involved. That is, you are not exchanging pure facts but also opinions. You are always in danger of questioning the others concept of life without knowing. And you are in danger of being attacked in your concept of life as well – often without the intention of the counterpart!

Example: “A discussion on how to react e.g. to islamist terrorism”. Or: “Is our society and economic system fair?” Bam! Here you go, immediately the ground will turn into a battlefield, with your opinions coming out of the barracks and deploying to the trenches, ready to defend you so-loved (and of course so correct (irony!) ) view of the world and your (of course universally valid (irony!) ) experiences.

Needless to say this is a difficult setting for a discussion.
But it still can be done, you just need a lot more information exchange between participants.
Something that writing cannot deliver.

Importance of body language

When I first hear the famous saying “80% of information between two people talking is exchanged via body language” years ago I thought this is crap. But actually, if you think about it, it is true! If you include the tone of your voice, the looks, the pitch, the movements etc., there is a hell of a lot of information transmitted next to the mere words. And exactly here lays the shortfall of online communication.

Example: You say something which you are convinced of to a person in a face to face setting and you notice she is hurt by what you said. You don’t know why she is hurt, but as you realize (and if you are not a complete idiot), within seconds, you will slow down your attack, you will check back why the other person was hurt, and in doing so, she might reveal the reasons and experience behind her reaction which in turn will lead you to better understand her position. You might then start a second attempt on what you were going to say, but rephrase it, maybe weaken it, taking her feelings into account. This all happens at a high pace and typically more or less naturally. That way you can discuss even very personal and emotional topics face to face if you have a minimum level of empathy and compassion (and I firmly belief everyone has that).

Not so in an online discussion.
You write something, then you wait without being able to observe. You maybe log off or preparing your next blow. The other person might be hurt or upset as well but you will not be able to notice. The only thing you see later is that she writes back in an angry or aggressive tone. You get angry too. But as it is practically impossible to accurately transport a “feeling” without it looking quite stupid or being unprecise (unless you are a poet maybe), you just shoot back and so forth.


I think I was involved in many “opinion”-based discussions in the internet, unless I noticed at some point that more or less never there was a real mutual understanding or progress evolving out of them.
Almost always, it was a mere mutual bombardment with facts, rhetoric blows and not seldom outright manipulation. A set of two or more (it gets worse with the number of participants) monologues instead of a real discussion. And I admit I played my part and did not do better than others.
In the end, the likely outcome is not a synthesis of opinions, but mostly a truce between participants when everybody realizes this is not leading anywhere.
And, also not seldom the outcome was even more negative: One of the participants left the discussion or the community for good.


A discussion in the internet on personal or emotional topics does not make sense.

In fact it does often more harm than benefit.

But the thing is, discussions / talks about personal and emotional topics are the real interesting ones!
They are the real spice of life and of communication, they are where you can cross the bridge and really establish contact to the deeper levels of another person. They are what holds friends, lovers and real communities together.
But not online!

Again: You have to get up from the sofa and meet people in person. And then start a talk about the great things in life, emotions, personal issues, opinions. Just do yourself and others a favour and don’t try to do this type of discussions online.




Ps. Any experience, advise that you have and like to share? Leave a comment!



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