Death of Conversation and the Nuclear Option


If you’ve spent any time online since the founding of the Internet, you know how quickly things can escalate when it comes to arguments.

"Borrowed" from Tony Bourke (@tbourke)

“Borrowed” from Tony Bourke (@tbourke)

This is no more apparent to me than the recent discourse surrounding “Donglegate.”  The short, short version:

Male Pycon attendees make inappropriate comments.  Female attendee gets upset and publicly tweets about it.  Stuff happens.  People get fired.

I’m not going to go into anything about the situation, as that’s not my place or my area of expertise to comment.  What I did find upsetting was that after the first attendee that made the inappropriate comments was fired from his job, there was a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack launched at the employer of Adria Richards (the female attendee).  Their website was knocked offline for a couple of days.  The news that Ms. Richards had been let go from her job had to be posted on Facebook initially, as there was no other official communication method available.  It wasn’t until the news broke of her removal that the DDoS finally died down to the point where normal operations could continue.

This is a disturbing trend that I’m starting to see in many online disagreements.  As an increasingly online society, we have started to forego polite discourse and jump straight to the “nuclear strike” option of retaliation.  Don’t like a blogger’s post?  Nuke his site with a DoS tool like LOIC.  Think a vendor employee did something wrong?  Shame them in public and release their private information (also known as “doxing”).  Even noted security researcher Brian Krebs had the local SWAT team called to his house after he wrote about a service used to knock websites offline.

How did we end up at the point where we’ve skipped past “I disagree with what you say and would like to debate this topic!” all the way to “You suck and I’m going to burn down your house and the hospital you were born in!!!“?  Rather than have a meaningful and rational discussion, it appears to be in vogue to nuke anything and everything associated with the person that has made you upset.

Look at what’s happened to Spamhaus recently.  Yes, the articles posting about a massive 300Gbps “Internet breaking” DDoS were a bit overblown.  Yet someone has decided that the best way to make Spamhaus “pay” for their crimes is to launch an attack that relies on using DNS exploits to amplify the traffic to the point where even DDoS frontends like CloudFlare are having a hard time keeping up.  Spamhaus does have a reputation for taking things to the extreme as well when it comes to blacklisting IP ranges suspected of providing havens for spammers.  What you end up with is a standoff where neither side is willing to budge from their viewpoint.  Only they fight their war with packet generators and black hole ACLs that cause problems for users and make ISP technicians pull their hair out.

I’m no stranger to the “nuclear option” myself.  I’ve made some comments on my blog that are a bit…pointed, to put it mildly.  While I do get a bit of satisfaction sometimes from verbally sparring with someone that has called me names or done other such unsavory things, that’s where it ends for me.  I have no desire to do any further harm besides jousting with clever phrases.  I’ve never considered erasing their phone or clogging their Internet connection or releasing their Social Security number online.  Ruining someone for the sake of making a point is the height of pettiness.

Here’s a thought: At the height of the arguments leading up to the American Civil War, where American representatives were calling for state secession opening in Congress, decorum never faltered.  Even when referring to a senator that was despised for their politics, the opponent always called them “the distinguished gentleman from <state>.”  Hard to believe that a conflict that saw families torn apart and Americans shooting at each other by the thousands could still have some polite discussion in a government on the verge of being ripped asunder.  Those rules served to keep a bit of decorum in a place where it was required for conversation and useful argument to take place.

Maybe the problem is anonymity.  It’s far to easy to fire off anonymous comments or be a small cog in a larger DDoS and have a huge impact while staying mostly safe behind a curtain of obscurity.  People who might never utter an ill word to another human being suddenly turn into biased uncompromising trolls.  Rather than discuss rational points, they turn to the most extreme option available to either silence their critics or prove a point in a “scorched earth” victory at any costs.  Consider this XKCD comic:

I laughed when I first read this.  Slowly, I realized that the author is right.  Sometimes reading back the comment to people proves the point better than anything.  I frequently use a commenter’s words in my replies to point out what was said and how it was construed (at least by me).


Tom’s Take

In the end, to me it comes down to a matter of manners.  I’ve always made it a rule here to never say anything about a topic or person that I wouldn’t say to them in person.  I also do my best to look at both sides of an argument with a critical eye.  I don’t call people names or threaten them.  Even when people call me biased, narcissistic, or even just plain stupid I just try and debate the facts of the discussion.  Sure, I may rant and rave and shout out loud to myself sometimes.  However, name-calling never accomplishes anything.  Moving beyond that to the nuclear option is equally appalling to me as well.  I have no desire to knock out anyone’s blog or line of business for the sake of proving a point.  If my arguments don’t suffice to change someone’s mind or get a policy I care for overturned, then that’s my fault and not the fault of others.  I just agree to disagree and move on.  Maybe therein lies the spark that will reignite polite conversation and discussion instead of leaping straight to the last resort.  After all, an attentive ear can win more battles than the sharpest spear.

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2 thoughts on “Death of Conversation and the Nuclear Option

  1. While “scorched earth” is practically always the wrong approach, sometimes “agree to disagree” isn’t quite optimal. Recall that in your Congress example there was a Sergeant at Arms empowered to remove people who violated decorum. On the internet there’s no such thing. In that less constrained environment, I think the best strategy is a combination of game-theoretic “tit for tat” and proportional response. Be nice at first, maybe even persist a bit even if they don’t reciprocate, but when that initial “credit” is exhausted push back *in proportion* to how rude they’ve been. There are many people online who like to test those limits, but who will settle right down once they find the point of resistance. Getting past that initial “breaking in” period has been key to many productive conversations that I would have missed if I’d just walked away.

  2. It’s not just online. As you say, it’s in congress, it’s in real life, I love going to see movies in a theater .. except for the people talking, and the people texting, and the people kicking my chair. It’s the same for going to a nice restaurant next to the table of a$$@#%@s that are yelling, literally, across the table to each other.

    There is no more common courtesy, respect, trust, and manners. Perhaps it’s a culture of “me” – don’t dis me, don’t tread on my rights, don’t bother me. Instead of being concerned about your feelings, your peace and tranquility, your rights.

    At least in the US, I think we’re turning into a nation of spoiled, disrespectful, rambunctious, misbehaved children.

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