The Quality of Online Discussion

Heidi Hirsto
Doctoral Student
Aalto School of Economics, Center for the Doctoral Program

The nature of online discussion is currently a hot topic of public discussion in Finland. For some, online discussion is a synonym for hate speech. Others regard it as the savior of democratic participation. Both sides seem to agree on one thing: the quality of online discussion, in actual actuality, is unacceptably low. People do not bother to build solid arguments. Instead, they resort to mockery and profanity; they use dirty words and make too many grammatical errors. In short, online discussion lacks sophistication, eloquence, and class.

In an ongoing empirical study with Merja Porttikivi and Johanna Moisander, we seek an alternative approach to the democratic potential of online discussion. By comparing representations of a factory shutdown decision in newspapers vis-à-vis online discussion forums, we come to the conclusion that online discussion bears social significance not in spite of its characteristic discursive practices but in fact thanks to them.

Our analysis shows that the news press puts up a relatively coherent representation of the factory shutdown, which is largely in line with the neo-liberalist view on business-society relations. In online discussion, no such coherence may be found. The discussion entails comments that openly celebrate the factory shutdowns in terms of share price boost; comments that evoke historical class differences; comments that put the blame on consumers; comments that preach against greed and avarice. Partial, fragmented, markedly subjective comments – which nevertheless manage both to subject the dominant discourse to critical appraisal and to surface alternative discourses.

Rhetorically, online comments employ – in more or less sophisticated ways – tones of irony, humor, and cynicism. It is customary to swear, to moralize, to polarize, and to use casual language. In such a communicative atmosphere, concerns may be voiced without relating them to some bigger picture, and without presenting a solid chain of arguments. And this may be the best thing about online discussion. Building a sound argument, namely, is damn hard; often when we try, we end up resorting to – and thus reinforcing – easily available, dominant discourses.

The internet and other social media are sites where elusive feelings, experiences, moral sentiments, vague ideas and hunches seek expression. Along the lines of educational philosopher Paolo Freire it may be argued that a prerequisite for any emancipatory effort is that people are both motivated and able to at least try and communicate their experience and knowledge, to put it into words. Expression is thus not only valuable in an individualist, therapeutic sense, but also in a more political sense. So the question is: do we really want to set quality standards for this expression?

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