TLDR: Online debate sometimes seems like it is co-terminous with public debate, but a type of Eternal September phenomenon prevents it from being real public debate. Instead, see it as a distributed literature review database.

In the old days of the internet, it was well-known that it takes time for new arrivals to be integrated into online culture. Every September, a small number of first-year students in undergraduate computer science degrees would get their first access to the internet, and would quickly discover Usenet, email, and other means of communication. And they would run amok! They would use bad formatting in their emails, they would reply-all unnecessarily, they would be rude, they would re-open old debates in ignorance of previous discussion. There were relatively few of them (most university students outside computer science didn’t get access or didn’t bother with it) relative to the number of people already online. And so the newcomers were fairly quickly acculturated. And the cycle would start again the following September, and the previous year’s newcomers would contribute to the acculturation process.

But in the early-mid 1990s, internet access started to become more common outside computer science students and in the general public. The “Eternal September” is the nickname for the fact that there were so many newcomers all the time that the acculturation process became an ongoing one. But still, it was mostly successful.

In the last decade or so things have changed again. The influx of new people has totally out-paced the ability of the existing online community to absorb and acculturate them. The people who are joining are far more diverse than ever before, and in fact are gradually becoming more representative of humanity, other than small children and people in very under-developed countries. And online communities are splintered in a way they weren’t before. Not only are the affordances of Twitter different from those of email or of Tumblr, but different people are using them and different behaviours are acceptable.

All of this is interesting as sociology of technology – different online forums have different effects on debate – but that’s not my goal here. I’m more interested here in the effect on public debate about society and politics. The internet has widened access to public debate (the old options were town hall meetings, letters to the editor, and phone-in radio programmes). Increasingly, public debate is online debate. So what we now have is a large Eternal September effect. New people are joining the debate all the time (this is a good thing) without adequate acculturation (this may be a bad thing, but can have benefits if the culture is too hegemonic or orthodox). In particular, they re-open old debates (this can be a good thing) in ignorance of previous discussion (this is always a bad thing).

Knowing what has previously been said is a fundamental requirement for high-quality debate. So, we need good literature reviews! Unfortunately, debate via Twitter and meme-editing does not lend itself to this: the affordances themselves are wrong. Furthermore, no debates about society and politics are ever settled online. People clash, we quickly escalate to high levels of self-righteousness, and eventually we just go back to talking to people who mostly agree with us. So there’s no basis in online discourse for producing summaries of society’s debates and conclusions.

But my position is not a pessimistic one. I’m trying to see online debate as a process of self-driven acculturation or education: rather than a process by which we settle questions, debate on Twitter becomes just a process of learning about what has previously been said. Admittedly, it happens in an inefficient and adversarial way: someone says something, and other people are able to attack them because it was ignorant of an essential fact or part of the previous debate. It’s Cunningham’s Law: “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer”. The Twitter hive mind which responds to every wrong post with a reply-guy “well akshully” is a distributed literature review database.

But society still needs to settle its questions, and so the importance of politics and journalism are not diminished by the rise of online debate. They have to continue to play their roles of listening to the people and drawing the best from public opinion, and then digesting it and offering it for approval at the ballot box. But they have to resist the temptation of treating all online debate, even the most ignorant, as “real” debate. Most of it is just people letting off steam, and occasionally learning something. The only debate that counts is debate between people who know the facts and know the contents of previous debate.