Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

The Scott Adams sock puppetry flap is still making waves on the breathless side of the Internet.

Part of me wonders, however, if he doesn’t have a point or two. Especially this one (emphasis mine):
Some time ago, I learned the hard way that posting messages with my own identity turns any discussion into an orgy of name-calling. When I'm personally involved, people speculate that I'm being defensive, or back pedaling, or being a douche nozzle, or trying to weasel my way out of something. Speaking with my true identity also draws too much attention to the very rumors I'm trying to extinguish. In contrast, when my spunky alter ego weighs in, people generally focus on the facts presented, including checking the source material to see my writing in context. The masked vigilante strategy worked well until recently. And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun.

Most of the inaccurate information about me on the Internet is harmless. And negative opinions about the quality of my work are always legitimate. The trouble starts when advocates for one cause or another use me as a whipping boy to promote their agendas. As I mentioned, the way that works is that they take out of context something I've written, paraphrase it incorrectly, and market me as a perfect example of the thought-criminal that they've been warning everyone about. I don't think any of this is an organized conspiracy. I think it's a combination of zealotry, bad reading comprehension, opportunism, and some herd behavior.
I hope, for starters, that I’m not doing exactly what Adams rightly scolds the breathless Internet of doing: Taking his writings out of context to make him a whipping boy (or a hero) for the point I’d like to make. (Read his full post here, so you may get the context.)

Of course, most people, as Adams says, don’t want the context, especially if it comes from the very person being accused of toolishness. We see that all the time, on the Internet and in the news – As soon as someone tries to defend himself or herself, there’s a good faction of listeners who react pretty much like this:

(Once again, you have to click the link for context, so I’m not guilty of doing what Adams rightly scolds the breathless Internet of doing. My apologies to Spamusement.com.)

Yet there is a faction of that faction who will, as Adams points out, react in a different manner if a perceived neutral party presents evidence that something has been taken out of context, or whatever.

So Adams, being a logical person, put one and two together and thought he’d found a solution. That his solution is sock puppetry, one of the few things the breathless Internet deigns to frown upon, shows that logic, even when applied in the best circumstances and with the best intentions, often fails. (Mr. Adams, sorry again for using you as an example in all of this. Yet it’s so easy.)

I have to wonder: If most of the inaccuracies about him on the Internet were harmless, then why go to the trouble of taking on the biggies? Surely, a vast portion of his Dilbert audience (myself included) were generally unaware of or indifferent to the inaccuracies until the Metafilter flap exploded. I guess that’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance – Adams being worried too much about one audience he was not thinking clearly about his effects on other audiences. (Though he does say this in his blog entry):
The next thing to consider is that in my line of work, some types of rumors can cause economic damage to hundreds of people in the so-called value chain. The stakes are high. I know from experience that when a rumor flares up that says, for example, I'm affiliated with one particular interest group or another, the people who hate that group will stop reading Dilbert comics. And they will aggressively warn everyone who will listen to do the same. This was a small problem in the pre-Internet age. Today, a rumor will send an army of advocates to vote down your products on Amazon.com and defame you on every blog and web site that allows comments. It happens in hours, not days.
That Adams thought he could solve the problem in this manner is laughable to say the least. I have grown used to the fact that as far as the breathless Internet is concerned, I hold views that, in context or not, are not popular and are not going to find well-reasoned and copious support. I still may blog about a few of those views, but I’m not going to expect that they be accepted or even interpreted correctly by those who read them. And trying to reason with people whom you already know are prone to “zealotry, bad reading comprehension, opportunism and some herd behavior” is already asking for trouble even if you do it under your own name and not in a manner that the breathless Internet shuns.

The Internet makes such ill-conceived behavior (the sock puppetry as well as the zealotry, etc.) easily accomplished. We’ve lost our ability to filter what we’d say because that least porous of all filters – laziness – is gone, thanks to that glowing LCD screen and keyboard in our collective basements, connected to the world. Mark Twain famously said: “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”

The breathless Internet is both friend and enemy to us.

I could, by the way, see Mark Twain loving and hating the breathless Internet of today, given his famous battles with the Gilded Age’s version of the breathless Internet, or the news business. And I could see him falling into the same logical trap Adams fell into as well.

So what’s the solution?

I dunno. Maybe this.

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