I always blow up in the group text. It’s not the only forum in which I lose my temper (ask anyone), but it does have this bias to argument and I fall for it every time.

The people in the group chats aren’t even the ones I want to argue with. A lot of them read this letter. You’re friends, family, acquaintances I haven’t seen in years. You’re not the oligarchs and nationalists who are ruining the future. You’re just the people who will put up with my vitriolic texts when I get hot, so you are the ones who suffer.

And forgive me for saying so, but I’m good at being mean. Especially in prose. And my swyping thumb is much faster than yours. I can drop three unforgivable curses before you can un-autocorrect your “there’s”. My ad hominem attack will slide right through your defensive walls of text like a knife through a ribcage–

Excuse me. The temptation is strong, even now. I want to prove the righteousness of my opinions, to change hearts and minds throughout the world, to steer us away from the cliff. Even if I alienate you, the group may be swayed, and thus my effect ripples outward. Or so I justify it.

Amy Olberding writes at Aeieion this week against “righteous incivility”. She says that though it’s possible to be rude and morally right at the same time, we can’t always distinguish between being morally right and just being pissed off. So we ought to be civil just in case.

My results agree: sometimes my mood is about food, not you. Sometimes it’s just so hot that the swamp cooler doesn’t work, and I’m lying on the tile floor trying to nap it off, and the cat is fucking with my face and the phone keeps buzzing and I’m genuinely trying to give you advice but I just can’t say it in a nice way when you’re being so defensive.

Sometimes it happens in person. I’m fine with that. I’ve never been said to be “conflict avoidant”. But in person, I can judge the room. I can judge your intentions. Thousands of years of human sociality inform the movements of our faces. Our bodies communicate in twitches and turns of heel, and we can feel each other’s emotional states as our mirror neurons alight. I can tell if I have gone too far. Text is such a lo-fi medium in comparison.

The group chat has more context than public social media, true. We know why these people are in this room (even if it’s the vestigial remains of a reason) and we know what characters they play. I don’t expect you to invite a brigade of nationalist fuckwits into the thing, even if you yourself start to display fuckwit tendencies. Our ideologies can battle it out in a safer, more private space than the tweets or the fecebook. Because who dares to have a conversation, when bots or trolls might raid at any moment?

But the group chat still provides an audience, which is an excuse for posturing. And the limited scope leads to the bane of small towns: exile. If you leave the group, you’ll never know what they’re saying about you. More tempting to go for the high ground, grandstanding until your enemies leave instead.

When I lived at a commune – a form of 24/7 live group chat – we called it “vibing someone out”: persuading them to leave by making their stay a living hell. Vibing someone out of Twitetr takes an army of trolls. Vibing someone out of the group chat can be as simple as a crass joke let slide.

If we were to have a social network that replicated the real world, it would have to measure other signals than “likes” and “shares”. Something like reddit’s ChangeMyView would be a start: on CMV, your “deltas” are displayed next to your username. 1∆, 2∆, 100∆. They represent how many times someone has admitted that you changed their view on a topic they posted. People come to CMV with their minds open to the possibility they might be wrong. Each persuasive argument, each delta, is a valuable new piece of information to help them get their minds right.

Unlike up- and down-votes, deltas aren’t awarded by the audience. They’re awarded by your interlocutor, out of respect. So the jeers and cheers of the spectators are drowned out by the actual conversation you’re having.

We do more than game metrics, though. We can create environments that speak to our deep brains. Phone calls and video chats are already more humane experiences than text messages, especially for tough conversations. Real life is better, of course, but the built spaces in which we live have their own hostility. The invisible hand drags us away from our homes, shoves us all around the world.

We can find our allies in the other lifeforms of Earth: the fenced-off creeks and weeds in cracks. And we can also make better virtual spaces. What if our political conversations were happening, not in small chunks of text, but in video-game worlds? We could walk under tall trees, listen to the birds and critters, and make our points as we stroll. See each other’s faces move, even get in each other’s faces, without the option or the threat of violence. Our natural voices, with all their rich complexity conveyed even through the compression and filters, exploring all the forms a dialogue can take. Would we make better choices?

We must choose our media for empathy, and thus allow for the possibility of change. Otherwise we doom ourselves to uncivil war.

Thanks for reading,

– Max


###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter about being nice to your friends in the apocalypse. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or give me those sweet sweet deltas. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .

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