Nuance On a Night Out

A concept for saving the art of conversation

It’s Friday afternoon. The work day is winding down, and you’re contemplating how effectively you can negate a whole week of stress in one night.

Assuming COVID lockdowns are a thing of the past, you’ve got options... Loud music and alcohol in the nightclub district. A concert or a movie. Getting stoned at a friend’s house. Or just potato-ing on your couch watching Tik Toks until you fall asleep. Analysis paralysis ensues.

Luckily your friend saves you with a short text, “lets try Talkspot tn?”

Talkspot? you laugh aloud, Nightclub names are getting more and more ironic these days. Nonetheless, you heart the message instantly, relieved that the burden of making plans has vanished. You smile. Tonight will be fun.

A few minutes past ten, you step out of your Uber onto a sidewalk bustling with tipsy clubgoers, dressed to impress. You recognize the familiar thump-thump-thump of the club at the end of the block, as well as the competing odors of cheap pizza and cheaper vodka. Weirdly this new club, Talkspot, is quiet, has no bouncers out front, and no one else seems to notice it.

Inside, in the front hall, your friend is waiting for you. Her face is a mix of impatience and excitement. “You’re late,” she teases. “We’ll have to wait a few minutes for the next session.”

You scrunch your eyebrows, confused. Then you do a double-take. The entryway is flanked by the busts of famous Greek philosophers, the floor is covered in decorative rugs, and there are pens and notebooks stacked on a mahogany side table. Your friend is dressed comfy, not snazzy.

“Wait a minute,” you ask, with a wary grin, “Where the hell are we?”

We’re not meant to talk this way

No one wants to be a hypocrite, so online we rarely allow ourselves the vulnerability to be wrong.

In the weird, warped world (WWW) of the internet, it seems that rational, level-headed and productive discussions are exceedingly rare. It’s not the internet’s fault (after all, sensational, political television started the fire) but it so happens that the places we all like to congregate — social media apps, forums, YouTube comments sections, and the like — suffer from some key infrastructural problems.

For starters, text-based communication is inherently limited in its ability to communicate exactly what we mean. To be fair, nothing we’ve yet invented can communicate exactly what we mean. But in text-only conversations, the essential indicators of tone and body language are difficult to reproduce and sometimes nonexistent. Emojis, emphasis, and CAPITALIZATION are examples of how we make up for these gaps.

Yet, even in cases where the tone is clear, the nuance of meaning can still be lost. This is especially problematic when online services severely limit the maximum length of a message, comment, or post — Twitter’s 280 character tweets, for example. Despite the fact that you can string together tweets in a reply chain, a single tweet still looks like a complete thought. The brevity lends itself to oversimplifying the more complex message you want to convey.

It’s understandable why celebrities love those massive, notes-app apology screenshots, right? 📝

Another major issue — specifically with forums like Reddit and comment sections like that of Youtube — is anonymity. We don’t need to cite any academic studies to understand that if humans are removed of the culpability and shame of saying something nasty, vitriolic, or untrue, a lot of them will say things that are nasty, vitriolic, and untrue. The lack of social consequence can quickly turn tame discussions into messy, no-holds-barred slimefests that are a waste of everyone’s time.

Although, a quick scroll of controversial topics on Twitter will show you that a certain breed of people don’t need anonymity to be mean liars.

I think the most important underlying issue with our online gathering places is that due to their (theoretically) 1:infinity ratio of speaker to listeners, it’s difficult to approximate the mechanics of a normal conversation. When a topic of controversy, and thus cultural importance, occurs on social media it typically follows this pattern:

  • Someone, usually an influencer, says something via a text-based post, a recorded video, or a livestream. They are often talking to the void: simultaneously everyone and no one in particular.
  • An unacquainted swarm of recipients gives its opinions in response, usually totally in support or totally in opposition.
  • The repliers/commenters/reactors battle each other in a flurry of likes, wit and ad hominem insults.
  • The original speaker might reply to the mob. Sometimes, they water down their opinion or outright apologize for it in order to avoid being canceled.

The whole ordeal is less of a back-and-forth conversation — like the ones you have with a friend over lunch — and more of a mosh pit of rigidly held opinions. Sitting across from a friend (or at least a flesh-and-blood human who is not your mortal enemy), you can explore the truth with the honest intentionality of Socrates: acknowledged ignorance is the precursor to true knowledge.

Each of you can learn a little from the other — correcting each other’s flaws and ending closer to the elusive truth than where you started.

In internet logic, sadly, to change your mind is to appear hypocritical. No one wants to be a hypocrite, so online we rarely allow ourselves the vulnerability of being wrong. God forbid someone holds that against us, destroying our carefully crafted façades of perfect, aesthetically-pleasing authenticity.

As Childish Gambino put it simply, “because the internet, mistakes are forever”.

A space to talk it out like grown-ups

If the environment is properly curated and you have an open mind, you’ll realize that this vibrant, contentious dialogue is a crucial part of the human experience.

Guess what’s more “adult” than voting, taxes, legal drug use, sexual consent, and home ownership?

Respectful disagreement. 😁

The online social arena, with its ambiguity of tone, enforced brevity of thought, rampant anonymity and unbounded scope of discussion, is not a well-suited place to have respectful disagreements. Not yet, at least. The technology is too recent in the long timeline of human evolution for us to wield it as an effective tool of communication.

But we’ll get there someday, I’m sure.

In the meantime, we have a lot of problems to solve. A lot of them are planet-sized problems. But a whole generation (my generation) of young adults is in danger of corrupting an essential element of our humanity: Namely, our ability to reason with one another — not as ideas, or avatars, or clusters of text, but as human beings with complex histories and perspectives. How might we correct that terrible arc?

It may sound obvious, but how about we just… start talking to each other in person again?

I mean really talking to each other. Probing the raw, messy questions of shared human experience with an awareness that we are people before our politics. Every controversial topic that has been simplified into a battle of right vs. left has at its core one or more universally human elements that are worth rigorous inspection.

Otherwise, what the hell are we all getting so worked up for?

I’m imagining the re-emergence of the Greek symposium (or Roman convivium), but for a modern age — we can leave the gender-exclusion and slavery in the past. The symposiums have been dramatized and mythologized throughout history, but at their core they were intimate gatherings where philosophical questions were posed and debated, drinks flowed and people formed lasting bonds through it all.

We already do this contemporarily, whether we realize it or not. The late-hours chats as a party winds down often turn symposium-esque, when existential thoughts surface through the haze of intoxication. Wine-nights and cigar-circles are often set up specifically for the purpose of interesting conversation. Even the cliché Thanksgiving dinners where liberal and conservative family members clash have symposium-potential, before they take their predictable dive into resentment.

Those conversational formats have their place among friends and family, but what about something more public?

In the story that opened this article, we left our protagonist (you) feeling rather perplexed about where your friend had decided to drag to you on a Friday night, after all the effort you put in dressing up and the money spent on that Uber into the city.

As it turns out, you’re in the lobby of a modern symposium club, a tangible gathering place designed to have the fiery, necessary dialogues that we fail to have online. There are multiple soundproofed conversation rooms that can seat no more than thirty participants and spectators. Your phones must be turned off and put aside.

Each room is reserved for a specific topic, which could be something as lofty as “What are the essential components of love?”, something decidedly controversial like “Is the Second Amendment necessary?”, or something timely and urgent, related to an ongoing news story. The symposium club is staffed with moderators that can fact-check at the request of participants and understand techniques for progressing a debate or deescalating tension — if the participants are inept to do this themselves.

The participants and spectators are real people from your locale (or perhaps visitors) that can look you in the eyes. That’s important — that’s how you build trust. They can be your friends, but they shouldn’t all be your friends. That’s boring. You won’t like everything that is said, nor should you. Life is messy — humans are messy — and you’ll quickly find that not all sexists are men, not all racists are White, and not all crass people live in their momma’s basement.

Here’s the crazy part, the part you might not believe until you try it: You will enjoy it. If the environment is properly curated and you have an open mind (you can have a glass or two, or three, of wine if you need to), you’ll realize that this vibrant, contentious dialogue is a crucial part of the human experience. It was always there, always at your disposal, but you were tricked — by many billions of dollars of marketing, no less— into thinking that social media was a better place to “converse” than in-person.

A caveat: in some cases, for some people, the internet is the only safe place to have certain types of conversations. Those conversations have undoubtedly saved many lives and catalyzed many important movements. But since the internet is so new in the span of human evolution and the social spaces still suffer from the infrastructural problems discussed earlier, I stand by my judgement that in-person conversation is better.

Once you’re attuned to this reality, you’ll begin to see social media as just media — a gigantic bulletin board of half-scribbled thoughts with enraged sticky-notes drowning out any semblance of a real message. When someone across the aisle says something concerning, you won’t immediately assume they’re a bigot, a snowflake, or just dumb, because last week at the symposium club you heard someone say that exact same thing — backed up with a personal history, a logical argument, and a trustworthy smile.

Soon enough, you’ll end the week looking forward to the Friday night tradition of talking and listening, learning and reflecting, thinking critically — getting ever closer to the truth. We have the power to make anything fashionable — why not that? Just give your local symposium a better name than Talkspot. Branding matters 😆.

I used to build code, now I build fictional worlds ✍🏾. | My favorite word is ‘paracosm’.

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