Why the same arguments repeat endlessly online

The internet opens up all forms of discourse to all kinds of people. Just a few decades ago, the dialogues of literary criticism were held between only a small handful of ‘qualified’ experts. Now, for better or worse, tens of thousands of people debate literature online.

When a discourse is conducted within a limited community, it is possible to manufacture a sense of progress. For instance, the Structuralist school of literary criticism is overtaken by the Post-Structuralist. In the unbounded conversational space of the internet there can be no such progress. All arguments exist simultaneously in states of perpetual conflict that can never find any satisfactory resolution. Progress and resolution can only occur on the individual level, as in the progress a learner through a body of knowledge.

Learning theory includes the idea of threshold knowledge and threshold concepts, ‘core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject’. It’s the transformation of perception that creates arguments, because individuals at different stages of learning hold fundamentally different and often irreconcilable perceptions of the same issue. And as any teacher knows, the students who argue hardest in class are often the ones making the greatest leaps in their learning. In the dialectic model argument is a powerful tool for learning (although it relies on a degree of control over the ego that is rarely present in online arguments).

In the Science Fiction community some notable threshold concepts include: the relationship between genre and literature, the value of ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ science fiction, the overlapping identity of science fiction and fantasy. There are of course many others. Wherever you see an argument being repeated again and again, you are likely to be observing the effect of a threshold concept and leaners in that discipline going through the process of transforming their perception (or failing to have it transformed in many cases).

You may have settled your perception of a threshold issue, in which case it’s tempting to dismiss familiar arguments. But don’t dismiss the people having them. They are just engaged in the learning process, and while they may seem behind you in this area, they may well be ahead in others. Such are things on the internet.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

2 thoughts on “Why the same arguments repeat endlessly online

  1. Good post. Some unexplored follow-on thoughts: how do you curate online spaces where discussion can move beyond threshold concepts, without becoming echo chambers; what does real, as opposed to manufactured, progress look like; and of course there are different and manifold thresholds, it’s not a one time exam, it’s levelling up. (But it’s a lot easier to see thresholds in your rear-view mirror.)


  2. Niall Harrison wrote:
    how do you curate online spaces where discussion can move beyond threshold concepts

    That must be the million dollar question. I suspect you suggest the answer with the term curation. I also suspect the SF community serves as a good example of how a community might achieve real progress, because it is a coherent community with very active curators such as yourself. I think explicitly recognising threshold issues is significant step. Curate open threads for them on forums. Present the leading arguments for opposing positions as standing resources. And its important for people at a higher level in a discipline not to stamp on arguments at lower levels, because thats only serving to deter people from getting involved in the community.



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