I think I'm turning into a grumpy old man

2010-09-19 22:19

I’ve noticed something. I am a lot faster to plonk people than I used to be. (For those who aren’t old Usenet sorts: *plonk* is the sound made when someone is dropped into a killfile.) I used to be pretty much inclined to plonk people only for being outright spammers or way, way, over-the-top hostile. Now, I plonk people for annoying me. And it’s a lot easier to annoy me than it used to be.

I think the big shift is this. I am now more inclined to think about any conversation in terms of what it will or won’t accomplish. It’s not fun to me anymore to trade gigantic email dialogues with people when it’s obvious that I can’t communicate with them. Or, maybe I’m just better at spotting when communication ain’t gonna happen. The net result is that I seem to have much more aggressive heuristics for “and now I will no longer read anything this particular person has to say”.

I’ve been poking at this a bit, because it’s a pretty big departure. I’m a bit of an infovore at heart, and it’s not as though I don’t enjoy reading crazy stuff; I love crank.net. I think it’s that, if I’m going to be trading words with someone, I want to feel like something more than just light entertaining reading will result. And I think that’s the thing; I want to feel like at least one party has a reasonable expectation of learning something from the exchange. It’s not that I expect people to agree with me; it’s that, if we’re going to be disagreeing, I’d like there to be some substance to the conversation. What that means is one of two things:

#1. The person appears to be processing and responding to my arguments. I don’t expect them to agree, but I want to at least know that they are capable of perceiving the reasons I’m offering for my position, and that if they’re offering rebuttals, the rebuttals are at least basically responsive to my points.

#2. I am able to learn more about what the person thinks by asking questions. I don’t expect to agree with their position, but if I ask for clarification on what something means, or how two things interact, I want to at least occasionally get an answer that has some kind of logical connectivity going on in it.

Without at least one of these, the whole exercise seems pointless. That includes broad categories of other annoyances. People who can’t be bothered to use words reasonably well. (I blame Webster’s. It’s all very well to publish a complete lexicon of ways in which words have occasionally been used, but if you don’t warn people that some of them are confusing or likely to be misunderstood, you create a monster.) People who respond to a large hunk of argumentation with “lol”. Etcetera.

But whatever it is, the fact is that ten years ago, I was a lot more likely to keep talking to people, and now I plonk them a lot faster. I’m not sure this is a bad thing; I occasionally see ongoing quoted discussions with some of the people I’ve plonked, and it appears to me that they’re staying useless. But on the other hand… There was, once, a time when I’d have put more time and effort into trying to draw them out, lead them through articulating their thoughts enough that I could make sense of them. Now, it just seems like too much work.

I think it’s the Internet. I now have an arbitrarily large supply of people whose writing is lucid to draw on, so I am no longer running out of coherent stuff to read. The desire to lead borderline cases to lucidity has been replaced by the desire to just go read people who are already lucid.

BTW, useful tip for all the militant descriptivists out there: Nine times out of ten, when someone claims that you “misused” a word, what they are trying to communicate to you is that they thought they knew what you meant, then they realized you couldn’t mean that, and they had to swap that word’s meaning out to make sense of what you said. Before you respond angrily with “but if you knew what I meant, then it was okay”, consider the possibility that if they knew what you meant the first time, they wouldn’t have started trying to diagnose the source of the problem in the first place, and thus, would never have noticed the alleged “misuse”.

Peter Seebach



  1. Seebs, I suspect you’ve just gone from 99th percentile to 96th when it comes to plonking. Most people give up much sooner.

    Dave Leppik · 2010-09-20 12:03 · #