1974: Conversational Dynamics
On the modern World Wide Web (usually coined as Web 2.0, in contrast to the original web envisioned and created by Tim Berners-Lee), particularly on internet forums (like the xkcd forums), a pervasive issue is that forum users with strong opinions but little interest in fruitful discussion will often interject themselves into all conversations that are related to their area of interest; examples include conspiracy theorists, political extremists, and trolls. This counterproductive behavior is not feasible in real life, where conversations happen locally and synchronously and one must be physically present in order to participate. In this sense, it is enabled by Internet forum technology. In forums that have search features, it is even easier for these problematic users to identify and target large numbers of threads rapidly. The field of conversational dynamics studies the interpersonal processes underlying dialog between people, and this is an example of how changing the mode of communication can negatively impact productive "conversational dynamics" (hence the title).
In this satirical comic, Randall imagines the inventor of the modern web, here depicted as Cueball, correctly anticipating that anyone will be able to inject their opinion into any conversation. When he tells White Hat about it, White Hat's comment, either sarcastic or very naive, interprets this as a benefit as he is willing to bet that this will not lead to any unhealthy [conversational] dynamics. In the best case, naive scenario, the web enables broader participation by helpful users with relevant information, in the real world it rather turned out as a potential problem as described above with trolls and conspirators overtaking many online forums. Note that in contrast to what the comic depicts, there is no single person or group who created the foundation of the modern web, unlike the original web where there is an identifiable person.
In the title text, White Hat suggests to Cueball to add a search feature that will enable these "helpful" users to be even more helpful by enabling them to jump into not just one conversation at a time, but into hundreds of conversations simultaneously. This may be referring to free, anonymous chat sites like 4Chan or possibly Discord. Whether White Hat is again sarcastic or just even more naive, Cueball immediately jumps to the conclusion that this will be an even better idea than his own, and continues to envision a system where "only the most well-informed people with the most critical information to share will use that feature."
In reality, as any modern user of Internet forums would be aware, both of these technologies are routinely abused by problematic users, and the characters are being too optimistic.
That we today need someone to fight online trolls was the subject of 591: Troll Slayer.
- [Cueball is sitting at a computer and pointing at the CRT monitor. White Hat is standing behind him.]
- Cueball: Check it out! My new system allows anyone on Earth to inject themselves into any conversation happening anywhere at any time.
- White Hat: Cool! I bet this won't lead to any unhealthy dynamics!
- [Caption under the panel:]
- The creation of the modern web
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