Trolls, comments, and Slashdot: Thoughts on the response to Avatar

The vast majority of the comments attached to “Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar and Neal Stephenson’s ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out’” are terrible. They tend toward mindless invective and avoid careful scrutiny of what I actually wrote; they’re quite different from the comments this blog normally gets, which is largely because I submitted the Avatar post to Slashdot, home of the trolls. One friend noted the vitriol and in an e-mail said, “Okay, the Slashdot link explains the overall tone of the comments your “Avatar” post is attracting.”

Part of the reason the comments are so bad is the hit and run nature of comments, especially on larger sites. If you have something substantial to say, and particularly if you regularly have something substantial to say, you tend to get a blog of your own. I wrote about this phenomenon in “Commenting on comments:”

In “Comment is King,” Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times, “What commenters don’t do is provide a sustained or inventive analysis of Applebaum’s work. In fact, critics hardly seem to connect one column to the next.” She notes that comments are often vitriolic and ignorant, which will hardly surprise those used to reading large, public forums.”

Furthermore, it’s easier and demands less thought to post hit and run comments than it is to really engage an argument. I deleted the worst offenders and sent e-mails to their authors with a pointer to Paul Graham’s How To Disagree; none responded, except for one guy who didn’t understand the point I was trying to make even after three e-mails, when I gave up (“never argue with fools because from a distance people can’t tell who is who”). The hope is that by consciously cultivating better comments and by not responding to random insults, the whole discussion might improve.

(Paul Graham has given the subject a lot of thought too: he even wrote an essay about trolls. As he says, “The core users of News.YC are mostly refugees from other sites that were overrun by trolls.”)

Not every comment I got one was terrible—this one, from a person named “Dutch Uncle,” was probably the best argued of the lot, and it mostly avoided ad hominem attacks. It, however, was very much the exception.

Most comments tended to deal in generalities and not to cite specific parts of my argument. In this respect, they have the same problems I see in freshmen papers, which often want to make generalizations and abstractions without the concrete base necessary. This happens so often that I’ve actually begun a keeping a list of all the things freshmen have told me are “human nature,” with a special eye toward placing contradictory elements next to each other, and in class I now ceaselessly emphasize specifics in arguments.

Since I’ve see this disease before, I’ve already thought about it, and I think the generalization problem is linked to the problem of close reading, which is a really hard skill to develop and one I didn’t develop in earnest till I was around 22 or 23. Even then it was only with a tremendous amount of effort and practice on my part. Close reading demands that you consider every aspect of a writer’s argument, that you pay attention to their word choices and their sentences, and that you don’t attribute to them opinions they don’t necessarily hold. Francine Prose wrote a whole book on the subject called Reading Like a Writer, but the book is a paradox: in order to develop the close reading skills she demonstrates, you have to be able to closely read her book in the first place, which is hard without good teaching.

Mentioning Francine Prose brings up one other common point I saw in the comments: few pointed to sources or ideas outside themselves, and allusions were rare. In the best writing I see, such elements are common. That isn’t to say every time you post a comment, you should cite four peer-reviewed sources and a couple of blog posts, but ideas are often stronger when they show evidence of learning and synthesis from others. In my Avatar post, I brought together Greg Egan, a New Yorker article, Alain de Botton citing Wilhelm Worringer, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the Neal Stephenson essay, and Star Trek. Now, my argument about Avatar could still be totally wrong, like an essay with hundred citations, but at the very least other writers’ thoughts usually show that more thought has gone into an essay, or a comment. Almost every article in every newspaper and magazine piece worth reading cites at least half a dozen and often many more sources: quotes, other articles, journals, books, and more. That’s part of what make The Atlantic and The New Yorker so worth reading.

Citations area common because things that are really worth arguing about require incredible background knowledge to say anything intelligent. The big response I’ve had to many of the comments, especially the deleted ones, are suggestions to read more: read How Fiction Works, The Art of Criticism, and Reading Like a Writer, then post your angry Internet screeds after you’ve thought more about what you’re arguing. These kinds of pleas probably fall on the proverbially deaf ears, but at least with this post now I have somewhere to point bad commenters in the future.

I think one reason I find Slashdot conversations much less interesting than I did as a teenager isn’t because the nature of the site has changed, but because I’ve learned enough to have learned how hard it is to really know about something. Now I’m often more engaged by pure information and less often in invective and pure opinion, especially when that opinion isn’t backed up by much. The information/opinion binary is of course false, especially because the kind of information one presents often leaves pointers to one’s opinion, but it’s nonetheless useful to consider when you’re posting on Internet forums—or writing anywhere.

Incidentally, one reason I like reading Hacker News so much is that the site consciously tries to cultivate smarter, deeper conversation, much as I wish to; it’s trying to meld technical and cultural forces into a system that rewards and encourages high-content comments of the sort I mostly didn’t get regarding Avatar. I submitted the Avatar post to Hacker News before Slashdot, and the first, relatively good comment came from a Hacker News reader.

The problem of trolls is also very old, and probably goes back to the Internet’s beginnings—hence the need for a word like “troll,” with a definition in the Jargon File. As a result, I’m probably not going to change much by writing this, and to judge from my e-mail correspondent, trying to do so via e-mails and blog posts is mostly hopeless. But a part of me is an optimist who thinks or hopes change is possible and that by having a meta conversation about the nature of trolling, one can avoid the behavior in general, at least on a small scale. At Slashdot or Reddit scales, however, the hope fades, and one simply experiences the tragedy of the commons.

EDIT: Robin Hanson has an interesting alternate, but not mutually incompatible, theory in Why Comments Snark:

Comments disagree more than responding posts because post, but not comment, authors must attract readers. Post authors expect that reader experiences of a post will influence whether those readers come back for future posts. In contrast, comment authors less expect reader experience to influence future comment readership; folks read blog posts more because of the post author than who they expect to author comments there.

Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar and Neal Stephenson's "Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out"

Despite reading Greg Egan’s brilliant review of Avatar, I saw the movie. The strangest thing about Avatar is its anti-corporate, anti-technological argument. Let me elaborate: there are wonderful anti-corporate, anti-technological arguments to be made, but it seems contrived for them to be made in a movie that is, for the time being, apparently the most expensive ever made; virtually all mainstream movies are now approved solely on their profit-generating potential. So a vaguely anti-corporate movie is being made by… a profit-driven corporation.

The movie is among the most technically sophisticated ever made: it uses a crazy 2D and 3D camera, harnesses the most advanced computer animation techniques imaginable, and has advanced the cinematic state-of-the-art. But Avatar’s story is anti-technological: humans destroyed their home world through environmental disaster and use military might to annihilate the locals and steal their resources. Presumably, if Avatar’s creators genuinely believed that technology is bad, the movie itself would never have been made, leading to a paradox not dissimilar for those found in time travel movies.

Avatar also has a bunch of vaguely mythical elements, including some scenes that look like the world’s biggest yoga class. The Na’avi, an oppressed people modeled on American Indians, or at least American Indians as portrayed in 20th Century American movies, fight against an interstellar military using bows, arrows, horses, and flying lizards. They live in harmony with the world to an extent that most Westerners can probably barely conceive of, given that more people probably visit McDonald’s than national parks in a given year.

So why are we fascinated with the idea of returning to nature, as though we’re going to dance with wolves, when few of us actually do so? Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness may offer a clue: he cites Wilhelm Worringer’s essay, “Abstraction and Empathy,” which posits that art emphasizes, in de Botton’s words, “[…] those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply with in itself.” We live (presumably) happy lives coddled in buildings that have passed inspection, with takeout Chinese readily available, and therefore we fantasize about being mauled by wild beasts and being taken off the omnipresent grid, with its iPhones and wireless Internet access. We live in suburban anomie and therefore fantasize about group yoga. We make incredibly sophisticated movies about the pleasures of a world with no movies at all, where people still go through puberty rituals that don’t involve Bar Mitzvahs, and mate for life, like Mormons.

Neal Stephenson wrote a perceptive essay called “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” which examines the underlying cultural values in the older and newer Star Wars films. I would’ve linked to it earlier but frankly can’t imagine anyone returning here afterwards. Therefore I’ll quote an important piece of Stephenson:

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents – not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology – and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work – as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

The tedious particulars of modern technological life are both embraced and avoided in Avatar too. The villain, rather than being political chaos, organized oppression, ignorance, entropy, or weak/ineffective institutions, to name a few of the real but abstract contemporary bad guys, is instead replaced by an army / mercenary commander who might be at home in Xe Services / Blackwater USA. The military villainy and disdain for superior firepower in Avatar is especially odd, given that the United States has held the technological advantage in major wars for at least a century; the people watching Avatar are probably also the ones who support our troops. The studio that made Avatar probably cares more about quarterly statements than about the environment. The movie villains, however, apparently aren’t being restrained by an intergalactic EPA.

Avatar is really a Western about the perils of modernity, but it gets contemporary politics utterly wrong—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary politics are utterly absent. There is no intergalactic criminal court or committee for the protection of indigenous peoples, which seems like a probable development for a race nursed on Star Trek and post-colonialism and that is advanced enough to travel the stars. In the contemporary United States, a bewildering array of regulations govern activities that might have an environmental impact on communities; the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), for example, requires that federal agencies to monitor and report on their activities. Such regulations are growing, rather than shrinking. They’re a staple bogeyman of right-wing radio.

But in Avatar, decisions aren’t made at the future equivalent of the Copenhagen summit. Instead, they’re fought in battles reminiscent of World War I, or the Civil War, leavened with some personal combat. The battles are jarring but anachronistic, although maybe Iraq War II: The Sequel would’ve turned out better if George Bush and Saddam Hussein had dueled with swords, but that’s not how wars are fought any more. And when one side has machine guns and the other side doesn’t, you get something as nasty as World War I, where all the élan, spirit, and meditation in the world didn’t stop millions of people from dying.

My implicit argument isn’t perfect: Avatar does criticize our reliance on oil through the parable of the cleverly named “unobtainium,” but the thrust of the movie is unambiguous. We want to fantasize that solutions are as simple as putting a hole in the right guy, which will make things right again. That’s probably a comforting notion, and an easy one to fit into a two- to three- hour movie with a three-part arc, but it’s also a wrong one, and one that ignores or abstracts the world’s complexity. The people who tend to rule the world are the ones who pay attention to how the world really is, rather than how it was, or how they would like it to be. The real question is whether we are still people who see how the world is.

James Cameron's Avatar

“Sometime in the next twenty years or so, the technology that enabled Avatar will become cheap enough to risk employing alongside a moderately intelligent script.”

—Alas: it appears that James Cameron’s Avatar is all technical achievement and no story. This is the cinematic equivalent of what I wrote about here with regards to literature.

EDIT: I saw the movie anyway and wrote about it here.

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