The Interlocutor’s Advantage

I have tried to figure out why online discussions and social media sucks or has become more stressful over time, compared to decades ago. What changed? It’s common to blame politics or ideological division, such as in 2016 in regard to Trump or 2020 in regard to Covid, which were highly divisive to the nation as a whole. But that is for another post.

In this post, I want to discuss a new possibility: what I call the Interlocutor’s Advantage (IA). What this means in any medium of communication, such as on social media or forums, someone who makes a rebuttal or disagreement, even if it’s wrong or inane , is instantly seen as more credible to spectators than the person he responded to above him (the parent comment or original poster (OP) ). [This applies to communities with nested comments, like on Reddit, not strictly chronological order like vBulletin forums.] Thus, the OP is compelled to respond to prevent the Interlocutor from ‘winning’ and to avoid being wrong to spectators who can see the objection right beneath the OP’s comment. Unless the OP has a ‘kill shot’ rebuttal, this tends to backfire and lead to the OP digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole, until eventually banned or quits.

This is sometimes seen with response videos on YouTube. For example, a reputable fitness influencer will make a video such as “Why Keto is overrated” or something along those lines. A lesser-known individual will make a rebuttal video. The rebuttal may be wrong, but it does not matter; in the public, it’s seen as suddenly being as credible, if not more so, as the original video. Also, it is easier to find a flaw or raise an objection, than to try to prove why you are right. All it takes is for a single well-timed or placed objection to undo an otherwise correct or solid argument. The asymmetry heavily favors the interlocutor. Just saying “you are wrong” to the OP and not even having to explain why is sometimes good enough.

As mentioned above, the IA occurs on communities with nested comments, such as Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook, breaking the chronology. Decades ago, when vBulletin forums reigned and social media was in its infancy, the IA did not really exist as it does now. Comments were strictly arranged chronically or in reverse, so your response would sometimes be pages away from the OP, hence no advantage. The OP was not felt as compelled to reply, due to the chain of communication being abruptly broken by the pagination or being buried or hidden among a sea of other comments, nor was there any loss of credibility for not responding.

For example, on Twitter, EY is compelled to respond to this inane objection. To leave it unchallenged would cost him some credibility to outsiders in accordance to the IA.

There are few good solutions to the IA. To do nothing means you still lose by default as the objection is directly underneath your comment as unanswered for the world to see. Responding only means digging oneself into a deeper hole unless you have a kill shot response that solidly and unambiguously rebuts the interlocuter, which almost never happens, at least by my own experience.

Maybe the best answer is to just eat the loss, or better yet, nuke the comment as soon as you get downvotes or negative feedback, without responding (assuming you’re not on Twitter and can just mute/block the user). This may seem excessive: who cares about ‘internet points’ or feedback, but doing nothing can create a bandwagon effect of additional downvotes, and also loss of posting privileges or having your subsequent comments be hidden, whereas this was less of a problem during the V-Bulletin days. Many social networks use sentiment and feedback indicators in terms of visibility and rankings.

Quickly deleting the comment is an easy solution and puts it out of sight, out of mind. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to find old Reddit threads in which many of the comments are deleted. This breaks the flow of the conversation, but it’s understandable how people decide it’s not worth it getting into a slog they will likely lose, and standing one’s ground and getting downvoted to oblivion is not worth it compared to just smashing the delete button and being over it.