Blaming the Internet

If you’re looking at an interesting argument against the trade sanctions to which the DPRK (North Korea) is currently subject, this article is worth a read. It’s an interview with Felix Abt.

Naturally, when I hear a businessman claiming his for-profit venture in North Korea is really a way of helping bring about reform there, I’m suspicious: it’s also a way of profiting off some of the most vulnerable people on Earth, and I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of business leading reform because business will (first and foremost, necessarily) always jigger things to benefit itself. It doubtless will bring reforms, but will it be the kind of reforms the people in North Korea need?

Still, it’s hard to justify sanctions we know aren’t going to topple the regime…

In any case, what brought me to write this post is actually just one passage in the article, in the part where the author explains the flamewars between the “sanctioner” and “engager” camps on North Korea-related forums:

Unfortunately, arguments are commonplace and cooperation between the two is rare. Part of this may stem from the fact that most North Korea scholars are above the age of thirty-five; as non-digital natives, they haven’t grown up on the wild, whacky Internet, where tone is easily misinterpreted. (Say what you like about those Reddit-reading Millennials, but in North Korean affairs, they have sharper netiquette and are less prone to digital meltdowns.)


That’s amusing. I’ve seen some pretty ridiculous trolling (and the odd digital meltdown) on Reddit, like other places young Internet users frequent. I don’t think Millennials are really all that more calm or etiquette-possessing than their elders.

I don’t think it’s misinterpretation of tone, or a failure of etiquette, that leads to flame wars and meltdowns. I think it’s a combination of:

  • terrible writing skills
  • terrible reading skills
  • a crippling desire to force other people to think like oneself

The poor reading and writing skills I describe seem, from what I can tell, to be pretty common across generational lines. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials all mostly suck and communicating in writing, because writing’s something that looks easy to do well, but isn’t. (A lot like photography in the age of smartphones: everyone’s got a camera, but one rarely sees a truly arresting, masterfully shot photograph.)

So if it’s not that they have better reading or writing skills, is it that Reddit-reading Millennials are somehow less under the influence of the dogmatic impulse? Don’t get me wrong: I think persuasive argumentation’s a good thing. But persuasion, as I always tell my students, isn’t about forcing someone to agree with you: it’s about making a compelling argument for your position, such that those who disagree cannot easily dismiss it, and the (very) few who are willing to admit they might be wrong may be convinced to reconsider their own position. That’s hard, especially when you truly care about a subject—and most of the people who bother to talk about North Korea and sanctions do care about it, after all. (Plenty of them might not be native English speakers, on top of that.)

Not that it’s because of better etiquette: that made me laugh. Millennials may be more savvy about certain things, but their manners are no better—and, I’d say, frequently just as terrible as—their elders. 1 Actually, my experience suggests young people are just as prone to dogmatic, thought-coercive excess. It’s just that among people of that age, it’s highly fashionable to affect a tone of disinterest: fashionable snark, attempts at irony, an arch tone, and claiming not to give a shit what anyone thinks.

Which is not to say I like that affectation. I just think it might be culturally adaptive, in a world where most people aren’t interested in being a good reader, writer, or thinker, and in a world where one must live surrounded by people who mostly aren’t very good at those three skills either.

Which is to say, it’s funny how often we blame the internet for things that are actually end user problems.

(Which is not to say there aren’t important design problems on social network sites. But that’s a subject for another post entirely.)

  1. The Millennials I lived with a few years back had horrendous etiquette, and on top of that, actually claimed no such thing as basic universal etiquette existed. As my wife put it, they seemed to want to be parented through their lack of good manners.

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