The great scientist Stephen Hawking once said that to achieve great things for mankind we should all keep talking. The fact that he was under the employ of BT at the time, who no doubt wrote the script and weren’t interested in whether you were planning to overthrow governments or cure world hunger as long as you stayed on the phone for a few hours every day, diminishes his message in no way at all. Of course if he’d spent any time on the comments threads of most websites he may have given up on humanity and focussed more on building a black-hole-powered teleportation device to get himself out of this manner-less wasteland.

In normal, civilised society the goal of a discussion is the exchange of ideas and opinions by mutually respectful individuals in search of a greater truth. This can be aided by comfortable chairs, a good supply of tea and a fine, warm pipe. Monocles are optional.

An example of the gentleman’s exchange is as follows:

Chap 1: I think that was a jolly fine game of football last night.
Chap 2: Indeed. Gerrard did well in the deep lying role.
Chap 1: Yes, that was surprising. He really is an adaptable fellow. Although his lack of mobility might be a hindrance against a more robust midfield.
Chap 2: I can see that. Excellent point. Can I borrow your lighter, my pipe seems to have gone out.

Take this to the internet and it becomes an entirely different affair.

Chap 1: What. A. Game! Gerrard was magnificent!!!
Chap 2: What were you watching? He was crap. His legs have gone and he should have been sent off twice. Your an idoit!
Chap 3: Chelsea would destroy your lot. KTBFFH
Chap 1: Osman dived. If you knew anything about football you’d see that. Try getting out of your mum’s basement once in a while.
Chap 2: At least my mum would be a better player in the central pivot.
Chap 4: I earned $20,000 dollars last year working from home. Click here to see how tinyulr.bty/567

And so on, with nary a pipe in sight.

Now you might think that this is just the rambunctious banter that you’d expect from football fans, but change the subject you’ll find similar results. Apple vs Android, Christian vs Athiest, I’ve even seen a feud break out on a site where writers meet to encourage and share useful tips. Such is the fractious nature of comments culture that a law has been created which states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ Spend any time following a thread and the inevitable truth of Godwin’s law becomes a reality.

Goodwin's Law

Surviving in this Moss Eisley of the internet is no easy feat, but if you can recognise the techniques of your would-be combatants, you may just make it out with your sanity intact. To aid you in your quest here’s a helpful guide to the denizens of digital dialogue, and the weapons they wield.  

The Initiators: Regular contributors whose entire mission in life is to be first on the thread. Somehow they possess magical powers that give them prescience of when a writer will post an article. It gets quite spooky, trust me.

The Passive Aggressive: Typically seems reasonable and calm, but this is merely the steel fist inside a velvet glove. They destroy their opponents by gently suggesting that the ‘point they’re missing’ or ‘the thing they’re failing to understand is’...

The Aggressive Aggressive: No such subtly here. Instead a full frontal attack on all and sundry. Much easier to spot, but can reduce rational individuals to screaming maniacs in just a few comments.

The Troll: See above.

The Correctors: Notorious hunters of grammatical errors. Woe betide any poor soul who would misuse their instead of they’re - vengeance will reign down upon you. A variant of this clan will also hound any spelling mistakes with utter ruthlessness. Never trust autocorrect in their presence.

The Straw Men: Just as Godwin’s law foresees the Nazi arrival, the other common outcome is a declaration by one of these that your argument is a Straw man. Often failing to understand what that even means, or when to use it.

The Single Track Determinants: No matter what the subject matter or current tangential direction everyone is taking, the STDs will hijack threads onto their singular, often wonderfully unrelated, area of interest. Expect multiple posts appearing constantly on the thread until someone acknowledges their existence. It’s most likely a cry for help.

Linkers: Having a discussion about anything vaguely science related is a recipe for disaster. Before long these insidious monsters will be including hyperlinks in their arguments that take you to 10,000 word PDFs which they insist you read to overcome your ignorance. You just know they’ve never read them either.

The Opinionated: No matter what you say, feel, or have experienced, you’re wrong. They’re just here to let you know that.

The Hurdler: These bewildering creatures often skip the article itself entirely and just start commenting below. Of course they have no qualms about insulting the author, subject matter, or conclusions, as they already know everything anyway.

While these characters remain mysterious and quite frightening, thankfully there is a larger breed that is resolute in the face of such barbarism. You see, although a thread may contain any or all of the above it is also held together by an admirable set of normal, sensible, reasonable, polite, and often intelligent people who are there to actually talk about the ideas posited in the first place. They self-govern, protect the weak, and fend off continued onslaughts from the above. In short they are the ones who give me hope that one day we will build an internet free from comments like ‘yoouu sssuuuuccckkkk!’.

So let me put on the largest cap I possess, in order that it can be appropriately doffed in your directions. In this hive of scum and villainy you shine like a brightly polished droid.