I’m still trying to figure out how to use Twitter. It seems great for keeping up with specific people or organizations that regularly post. However, I am not sure how it is supposed to be useful if you are not a well-known person yourself. Facebook just seems better for keeping up with people you already know, so posting on Twitter feels strange. /rant

You can find me on Twitter as @nargaque.

Making Use of the Armchair: The Rise of the Non-Expert

As with all news, when I heard about the Sochi skating controversy last week, I read multiple sources on it and let it simmer. From the comments, however, that I saw on Facebook, Reddit, and on the news websites themselves, one thing struck me—nearly everyone seemed to be have extensive knowledge of Olympic figure skating, from the names of the spins to the exact scoring rubric.

How could this be? Was I the only person who had no idea who Yuna Kim was, or that Russia had not won in the category before?

Much of this “everyone is an expert” phenomenon is explained by selection bias, in that those with more knowledge of skating were more likely to comment in the first place; therefore, most of the comments that we see are from those who are the most knowledgeable.

But it’s unlikely that there would be hundreds of figure skating experts all commenting on at once. Moreover, when you look at the commenting history of the people in the discussion, they seem to also be experts on every other subject, not just in figure skating. So another effect is in play.

Namely, the Wikipedia effect (courtesy of xkcd):

xkcd Extended Mind

Of course, this effect is not limited to skating in the Olympics. When Newtown occurred, masses of people were able to rattle off stats on gun deaths and recount the global history of gun violence in late 20th- and early 21st-century.

Even so, not everyone does their research. There are still the “where iz ukrane????” comments, but undoubtedly the average knowledge of Ukrainian politics in the United States has increased drastically in the past few days. If you polled Americans on the capital of Ukraine, many more would be able to answer “Kiev” today than one week prior. For every conceivable subject, the Internet has allowed us all to become non-expert experts.

Non-Expert Knowledge

The consequences of non-expert knowledge range from subject to subject. The main issue is that we all start with an intuition about something, but with experience or training comes a better intuition that can correct naive errors and uncover counterintuitive truths.

  • An armchair doctor might know a few bits of genuine medical practice, but might also throw in superstitious remedies into the mix and possibly harm the patient more than helping. Or they might google the symptoms but come up with the wrong diagnosis and a useless or damaging prescription.
  • Armchair psychologists are more common, and it is easier to make up things that sound legitimate in this field. It is possible that an armchair psychiatrist will help a patient, even if due to empathy and not from psychiatric training.
  • Armchair economist. Might say some insightful things about one trend that they read about in the economy, but could completely miss other trends that any grad student would see.
  • Armchair physicist. Might profess to have discovered a perpetual motion machine, to be dismissed by a real physicist because the machine actually has positive energy input and is hence not perpetual. Or, might read about the latest invisibility cloak and be able to impress friends by talking about the bending of electromagnetic waves around an object by using materials with negative refractive index, but has no idea that it only works for a particular wavelength, thus making it practically useless (for now).
  • Armchair philosopher. Perhaps the most common, the armchair philosopher notices the things that happen in life and takes note of them. The article that you are currently reading is armchair philosophy, as I basically talk about abstract stuff using almost zero cited sources, occasionally referencing real-world events but only to further an abstract discussion.

Going back to the physics example, we normal people might observe the drinking bird working continuously for hours and conclude that it is a perpetual motion machine. An armchair physicist might go further to claim that that if we attach a motor to it, we could generate free energy.

Drinking Bird

A real physicist, however, would eventually figure out the evaporation and temperature differential, and then conclude that it is not a perpetual motion machine.

Five minutes of reading Wikipedia will not allow you to match an expert’s knowledge. But having non-expert knowledge sometimes does help. It opens up the door to new information and ideas. If everyone spoke only about what they were experts in, the world would become boring very quickly.

Talking About Topics Outside of Your Expertise

In everyday speech, any topic is fair game except for, ironically, the one topic that everyone is deemed to be an expert in even without Wikipedia—(their) religion. But I digress. The point is, the way we talk about things on a day-to-day basis is very different from the way experts talk about them in a serious setting.

Some differences are very minor and just a matter of terminology. For instance, I was discussing the statistics of voter turnout in the 2012 election one time, and I had phrased it as “percentage of eligible people who voted.” At the time, I did not know that “turnout” was a technical term that meant precisely what I had just said; I thought it was just a loose term in that didn’t necessarily consider the difference between the electorate and the total population, hence why I phrased it so specifically. In this example, the statistics I presented were correct, and thus the conclusion was valid, but the terminology was off.

Other differences are more significant. In the case of medical practice, a lack of formal understanding could seriously affect someone’s health. Using Wikipedia knowledge from your smartphone to treat an unexpected snake bite in real time is probably better than letting it fester before help arrives. But it’s probably safest to see a doctor afterwards.

A non-expert discussion in a casual setting is fine, as is an expert discussion in a serious setting. But what about a non-expert discussion in a serious setting? Is there anything to be gained? If two non-physicists talk about physics, can any meaning be found?

My answer is yes, but you need to discuss the right things. For example, my training is in math, so it would be pretty futile for me to discuss chemical reactions that occur from the injection of snake venom into the human body. However, given that I had done my research properly, I might be able to talk about the statistics of snake bites with as much authority as a snake expert. Of course, it would depend on the context of my bringing up the statistics. If we were comparing the rise in snake deaths to the rise in automobile deaths, I might be on equal footing. But if we were comparing snake bite deaths between difference species of snakes, a snake expert probably has the intellectual high ground.

But even this example still requires you to use some area of expertise to relate it to the one in question. To the contrary, you can still have a legitimate discussion of something outside your area of expertise even without relating to an area of expertise that you already have. You only need to make a claim broad enough, abstract enough, or convincingly enough to have an effect.

Among all groups of people, writers (and artists in general) have a unique position in being able to say things with intellectual authority as non-experts. Politicians are next, being able to say anything with political power as non-experts. However, I’m interested in the truth and not what politicians say, so let’s get back to writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not a formal historian of the 1920s, but The Great Gatsby really captures the decade in a way no history textbook could. George Orwell was not a political scientist, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was very effective at convincing people that totalitarian control is something to protect against.

The Internet and the Non-Expert

On the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four was not crafted in a medium limited by 140 characters or by one-paragraph expectancy. If George Orwell were alive today and, instead of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote a two-sentence anti-totalitarian comment on a news story on North Korea, I doubt he would have the same effect.

It is usually hard to distinguish an expert from a non-expert online. Often, an expert prefaces oneself by explicitly saying, “I am an expert on [this topic],” but even this is to be taken skeptically. I could give a rant on the times people claiming to have a Ph.D in economics had no grasp on even the most basic concepts.

In addition to allowing us the sum total of human knowledge just a click away (well, maybe not all knowledge), the Internet allows us to post knowledge instantaneously and share it with millions of other users. We have not only the public appearance of non-expert knowledge, but also the virus-like proliferation of it. Since the dawn of the Internet, people have been able to acquire knowledge about anything, but there was a great divide between the few content providers and the many consumers. Only recently have we become the content makers ourselves. What is the role of armchair philosophy in the age of information?


Now is a more important time than ever to be an armchair philosopher, or an armchair thinker, precisely because of the overwhelming amount of information available to us. To deal with the data overload requires an abstract way to categorize information, to filter out the useless from the useful, the wrong from the less wrong, the less true from the true.

We are expected to deal with areas outside of our expertise, and as our knowledge of these areas grows from the age of mass information, our responsibility to use it correctly becomes greater. Forming opinions even on issues that you have no authority to form opinions on is now an imperative. We learned the capital of Ukraine in one week, and our googling of Kiev might prove useful in the future. To deal with a quickly changing world, we need to deal with all information, not just data that we are comfortable with, as effectively as possible.

Internet Trolling

Whenever you hear something dumb—and I mean really, unbelievably, absurdly dumb—there is always something that top that: the YouTube comment section. xkcd seemed to think there is nothing “quite as bad”:


But a couple of months ago, when our Internet overlords forced YouTube comments to require a Google+ account, the Internet itself responded with a massive backlash. We could no longer remain anonymous. It was the end of the world, almost as if we had to adapt to writing comments using a real-identity profile system that almost anyone can see and where you have no real privacy because all of your information is stored by a multi-billion dollar company.

One of the most significant reasons the YouTube comments were so bad was that everyone could be anonymous, and thus have no accountability like they would have in real life if they uttered something so dumb in public. As someone who has managed forums before, with first-hand experience in dealing with flamers, spammers, and downright immature idiots, I found myself on Google’s side of the fence when the Google+/YouTube controversy started.

Internet Trolling

My last post on trolling was over three years ago, titled “A Sociological Perspective on Internet Trolling.” I looked at the origins of Internet trolling and attributed it to the combined factors of decline of impression management and decline of social control, both of which resulted from from the interaction of a large number of anonymous, unconnected people. (By “decline of impression management,” I mean that people on the Internet have less of a need to maintain a reputation. And “decline of social control” is what it sounds like: there are fewer influences and incentives for civilized behavior.)

The Origins of Trolling

In just a little more than three years later, however, the landscape of the Internet has changed significantly. Social media was still fighting a campaign of conquest back then, but now it is the established empire. This forces a reevaluation of Internet trolling. Social media has significantly reduced, if not negated, the effects of anonymity in regions where most of Internet interaction takes place. But trolling still exists, albeit in a different form.

Additionally, the definition of trolling needs to be reexamined. From Wikipedia on Dec. 8, 2010 (given the topic, I think the Wikipedia definition gives a more practical, if not more accurate, definition than from a formal dictionary):

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Note that I have highlighted the phrase “with the primary intent.” This made sense in an age when forums, chat rooms, and blogs were indeed the primary methods of mass online communication. It was difficult to imagine that someone could be a troll “accidentally.”

But here is today’s Feb. 2, 2014 definition:

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Today, accidental and intentional disruptions are both considered trolling. In addition, the 2010 definition started by saying that a troll is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community,” i.e. an action-oriented definition. If you do X, then you are a troll. By contrast, the 2014 definition starts by being results-oriented, a troll is “someone who sows discord on the Internet.” Hence the possibility of accidental or intentional trolling.

So what does the change in definition say? It means that trolling has evolved, and we may trace the evolution of trolling to multiple factors including:

  1. A change in mode of mass Internet communication, e.g. with social media, it is now easier to be in a situation where you might be a troll, even if unintentionally.
  2. A change in usage of the Internet, e.g. computers vs smart phones.
  3. A change in Internet policies and rules, e.g. the decline of anonymity imposed by Google.

Mode of Communication

In 2010, Twitter was still in its relative infancy, not quite the publicly traded company it is today. But the Twitter style of communication is very different from that of a “forum, chat room, or blog” that both definitions of trolling included as examples of online communication. On Twitter, the 140 character limit severely limits the amount of context, explanation, and room for justification. Thus it is extremely easy to misinterpret posts on Twitter that would not be misinterpreted in a more classic online community.

While factually true and supportive of an arguably legitimate point, this tweet by itself looks incredibly offensive, and the “point” that it seems to make is not the point it was intended to make. Indeed, it generated a lot of controversy. Indeed, here is a link by the same author, Richard Dawkins, talking about the same subject, but using a different medium. Interestingly, he was very aware of Twitter’s inflammatory nature, and in fact the aggressive-looking post is actually a toned-down version of one that could have compared Jews and Muslims:

Twitter’s 140 character limit always presents a tough challenge, but I tried to rise to it. Nobel Prizes are a pretty widely quoted, if not ideal, barometer of excellence in science. I thought about comparing the numbers of Nobel Prizes won by Jews (more than 120) and Muslims (ten if you count Peace Prizes, half that if you don’t). This astonishing discrepancy is rendered the more dramatic when you consider the small size of the world’s Jewish population. However, I decided against tweeting that comparison because it might seem unduly provocative (many Muslim “community leaders” are quite outspoken in their hatred of Jews) and I sought a more neutral comparison as more suitable to the potentially inflammable medium of Twitter. It is a remarkable fact that one Cambridge college, Trinity, has 32 Nobel Prizes to its credit.

In any case, is Richard Dawkins a troll on Twitter? My answer would be a qualified yes. The main caveat is that trolling usually derails the topic, i.e. “disrupt[s] normal on-topic discussion.” However, Dawkins is not trying to bring an existing discussion off topic, but instead, responding very relevantly to a false claim (details in the link). On the other hand, Dawkins is indeed an intentional provocateur, so it would seem that the general context of Richard Dawkins overrides the specific context to this incidence.

Now, if a public intellectual can be a troll, what about the average person? Or the below-average person? What about the “[The Moon landing] is so obviously faked its unbilevable, why r people so gullible??? Morons” type of people?

Of course, Twitter is just one example of many of the changes to social media over the past four years. It may be part of the shortening trend, i.e. the average length of what people read and write becomes shorter over time (books, to articles and letters, to blog posts, to Facebook statuses, to tweets). But it is clear that the Twitter-style confusion is partly due to the platform itself, that the lack of context would not be as extreme as in a forum, chat room, or blog.

Physical Usage of the Internet

The way people access the Internet is changing as well. While 21% of cell phone users used a smartphone by the end of 2009 [Nielsen], the number was 56% in 2013 [Pew]. In addition, a much higher percentage of activities are being done on smartphones now, thus the phone interaction with the Internet has increased by multiple factors since 2009/2010.

In addition, Internet usage is different on the smartphone vs on the computer [Harris]. This is probably tied to various factors including ease of typing (typing longer documents is more difficult on a smartphone), convenience/situational (e.g. using navigation or checking in on a smartphone), security (sensitive work material would probably belong on a computer, as would online shopping with credit card info), etc. As the Harris poll suggests, many of the top uses are device-sensitive.

The length of a piece of text is quite related. While the Harris poll reports social media used roughly evenly on computers and smartphones (with computer usage slightly more overall), there are also different kinds of social media. I might almost exclusively use WordPress on a computer to have better access to faster typing and to resources like research, links, or images; on the other hand, for Twitter, I might use a smartphone more. I would claim that part of the recent change in Internet trolling is due to the rise of smartphones.

Internet Policies

External regulations usually play a part, and in the case of the Internet, the story is no different. While the Internet is generally a rule-free, anti-establishment institution, it can be governed, often with massive backlash. In the midst of backlash against Google for being too much in control and for taking away our privacy, don’t forget when the government tried to pass SOPA, Google was on our side.


It is also interesting that the recent integration of YouTube commenting with a Google+ account has a significant precedent in the online gaming world: the integration of Blizzard forum posting with a RealID. This mid-2010 event provoked massive controversy and was eventually rescinded.

According to Blizzard, one of the reasons was the rampant trolling [previous link]:

The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players – however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild…. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

Now replace “Blizzard” and “the forums” and “games” with “YouTube” and “the comment section” and “videos” It’s interesting how this is echoed by Google did three years later. Of course, companies always have financial incentives as well, but it is uncanny that both list troll-fighting as reasons for the changes. On the other hand, it looks like Google succeeded where Blizzard failed.

Accidental Trolling

Accidental trolling is a new enough phenomenon that deserves its own section. While trolling doesn’t seem to happen on Facebook as much (though a couple of incidents did occur to me last year), we have already seen what it can do on forums as well as on Twitter, the difference being that on Twitter, the veil of anonymity is replaced by the shortness of speech.

Trolling from anonymity:

  • Identity not connected to real life, thus no accountability, no external reason to maintain reputation.
  • Others are anonymous as well, thus there is even less reason to refrain from insults or flaming.
  • No police or authority figure to enforce rules. There are admins and moderators but this is often insufficient when the amount of posts is absurdly large (e.g. Blizzard forums or YouTube comments).

Trolling from short speech:

  • No facial expressions or body gestures, thus no information about the tone or mood of a contextless sentence. Even sarcasm has to be extremely carefully crafted, otherwise it fails to be noted as sarcasm.
  • Generally little context about the statement. If someone makes a one-sentence claim about physics, it could be: (1) a physicist saying some profound statement about physics, (2) a physicist clarifying some commonly misunderstood notion, (3) a physicist responding to a claim, (4) some physics student writing about what they learned, (5) someone just making stuff up about physics, (6) a fiction writer making a life analogy to a basic concept in physics, (7) a fraud making a New Age claim about quantum healing, (8) a comedian making a joke about something in physics, etc., and it would not be trivial to discern these based on a short, aphoristic saying.
  • Limited space. For example, in a single tweet, I might address part of some large issue simply because I can’t address all of it in 140 characters, and then I get called out on tunnel-visioning to that one part and ignoring everything else. This is less of an issue with longer posts, but it still happens.

Note that the second category, trolling from short speech, is much more prone to accidental trolling, hence why accidental trolling is a more recent issue.

Accidental trolling also occurs from numerous cognitive fallacies. Confirmation bias and selection bias are the king and queen of online flaming. Using the advantage of the limitless information available on the Internet, it’s very easy to find information supporting your own position as well as to ignore contradictory evidence. Thus it’s easy to find articles all over the Internet that seem quite well-researched at first, but then you realize all the research is completely one-sided. This can cause a lot of trolling as well: given an obviously biased article, some commenter might point to some contradictory evidence to hint at how biased the original article was, but the contradictory evidence given happens to also have fallacies, and thus begins a flame war of commenters talking past one another.


Some sites have measures in place that (intentionally or not) reduce trolling, though sometimes at other costs. Tumblr, for instance, does away with the classic thread responding, thus eliminating the very possibility of how most trolling starts; on the other hand, it’s hard to have discussions at all, and it is often a pool of groupthink, with too similarly minded people repeating each other with little influence on the outside world. Reddit has a voting system that should theoretically send the trolls to the bottom; on the other hand, sophisticated trolls (again, whether intentionally or not) might make some statement that seems good at first, getting many upvotes, but in actually just derails the discussion or is a strawman argument, thus getting people who agree to upvote, making the voting system based often on how much people already agree with something, rather than based on the merits of one’s argument or position. If anything, Facebook is the most anti-troll of the major social networks, simply because it uses very real identities, thus people generally don’t want to say anything bad that others close to them can see.

As we have also observed, one method of actively fighting trolling is to remove anonymity, as in the cases of Blizzard and Google. However, this will generally (and perhaps unsurprisingly) produce significant backlash, and even if implemented successfully, it doesn’t fully solve the problem, because anonymity is not the only cause of trolling. In addition, we would need to resolve the factor of lack of context as well.

Thus two important theoretical measures for countering trolling are: (1) lifting the veil of anonymity, to instill the maintenance of reputation and social control, and (2) the increase of context, letting others judge something for what it is, rather than for a distorted vision of what it is.

As the differences between 2010 and 2014 show, trolling is a rapidly evolving issue in the online world that becomes ever more important as the world, not just America, becomes increasingly online. Progressing forward with what we know is the best course of action. And as one of my favorite YouTube commenters ever said, “It’s 2011. Can we get some color photographs of the moon already?