The forgotten art of the internet argument

When people talk about legendary internet arguments, one that consistently comes up is the infamous Bodybuilding.com forums war between roid freaks who cannot come to a sensible agreement on how many days there are in a week. The reasonably concise (by internet forum standards) five-page thread has many individual posts which are phenomenal artistic objects in their own right, with my personal favourite being the following from user Justin-27:

I have a feeling you are so mentally retarded that we need to take the "week" lingo out of this and go to numbers. Do what I said above, tell me how many times you train in 4 SEVEN day weeks, aka one month.  Use the calendar for your retarded eyes to see the truth.

This thread is from 2008, and it captures the pre-2010s essence of a perfect internet argument. It is both low stakes, in that it is a small group of boneheads bickering for no reason over an idiotic point, and unfathomably high stakes, in that it is a heated dispute over a fundamental fact of our shared symbolic order. Everyone is utterly furious, but there are no real consequences. It has barely any relation whatsoever to the ‘real’ world.

It is, to any outside observer, extremely funny.

It’s the kind of argument which thrives in the hermetic confines of old-school message boards, but struggles to exist somewhere like Twitter, where thousands of self-appointed fact checkers and freelance clowns would have swarmed the thread long before it reached its birdbrained apotheosis. It hearkens to an era when the Maslovian desire to be utterly correct on the internet existed for its own deranged sake, rather than being subsumed into endless culture war; when ‘going on the computer’ was an activity rather than a totalising state of being.

Representative of this shift is the gradual redefinition of the world ‘trolling’ — which once meant deliberately posting inflammatory content online to provoke an emotional response and start arguments1 for the pleasure of the troll, but has evolved into a general catch-all for all internet conflict ranging from mundane disagreement to the genuinely dangerous.

On the complete other end of the spectrum from the bodybuilding argument was the overwhelming response to journalist Elle Hunt’s assertion on Twitter that horror movies cannot be set in space. Whether or not you agree with that — which was literally pitched as settling a good old-fashioned IRL argument — it probably did not warrant tens of thousands of increasingly hysterical replies and quote tweets, which forecloses on the possibility of actual conversation (enjoyable or otherwise) and is now more or less unavoidable on public social media.

Endless column inches have been dedicated to grappling with why social media is an unpleasant place to have a debate, generally by opinion writers who have never liked the fact people can actually reply to their evidence-free contemplation rather than silently absorbing it. As many have pointed out before, a shrewd columnist can now squeeze two pieces out of any one subject: an initial take, and then a follow-up decrying the onslaught of anti-liberal trolls who converged on the first one.

One that actually rings true, though, is Venkatesh Rao’s theory of the ‘Internet of Beefs’, which he expounded upon in an extremely long, incredibly insightful, and at times somewhat unhinged blog post early last year:

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honour-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage.

Online public spaces are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers, as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict. As the Great Weirding morphs into the Permaweird, the public internet is turning into the Internet of Beefs. 

The Internet of Beefs, or IoB, is everywhere, on all platforms, all the time. Meatspace is just a source of matériel to be deployed online, possibly after some tasteful editing, decontextualization, and now AI-assisted manipulation. 

This essay was published just prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but that last para there has really captured the kind of strange, often alienated online discourse around Covid which started in March last year and has kept on rolling since.

Though the seriousness of the subject and incredibly high stakes are rarely in dispute by anyone, most online arguments about Covid, lockdown and vaccines seem largely unmoored from actual reality while those participating insist they are not. People naturally filter into a for and against on any given issue which tends to align with where those that share their political priors are coalescing. Then they do battle like they’re playing Warhammer. At times, it feels difficult to even ‘trust the science’ or any neutral arbiter, when all of it gets immediately sucked into and interpreted through the Beef.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the debate about Sweden, which set itself apart early in the pandemic by avoiding hard lockdowns. As such, it instantly became fodder for endless arguments, with people online (very few of whom either lived in Sweden or in a country much comparable to it) picking apart every single update or death count to find ammunition to bolster their argument in some Covid argument or another. Both sides of the lockdown debate had at various points reason to invoke the Swedish example, and then, when the data had become too cloudy and the situation too complex to really extract any truly meaningful conclusion, it was dispensed with entirely.

You got the overwhelming sense that few really believed there were necessarily actionable policy lessons from the Swedish example for their own country, or that those lessons would ever be implemented in their own countries — just that it was something that could be fed into the online culture war thresher with minimal resistance. It is argument as a numbers game — a sport, but not one where anyone’s having a good time.

On the other side of the coin is a phenomenon pointed out by Ryan Broderick in his newsletter Garbage Day this week: that there stands waiting an entire ecosystem of media ready and waiting to repackage any interesting online argument into grist for the content mill.

As these trending main characters go viral on Twitter, hundreds of online outlets race to turn this into content. And there’s a real financial incentive for covering these stories. As most people working at various content mines can tell you, the thing Facebook readers love the most is getting mad about stuff that’s happening on Twitter.

Ironically, the bodybuilder debate from the start of this newsletter was turned into stories across a number of news sites and blogs in the middle of the last decade, after the contentification of the web had started in earnest. One characterless content chum platform wrote it up this year, a full 13 years after it was originally posted.

As a salve to all of this, one of my favourite accounts on all of Twitter is the Ace Attorney Court Bot, which — simply by dropping its @ in the replies of a thread — automatically recontextualises the conversation above it as a tense courtroom drama. Case in point, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen:

I think the reason I find this bot (which is based on Japanese courtroom adventure game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) so funny is that it feels like a glimpse of the promise of the old internet. When arguing was an art, even if the people involved didn’t know they were artists.

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Or ‘flamewars’, a word which was endemic to the pre-social web but is rarely used these days.