Back in 2005 I became involved in an International Relations discussion forum on Orkut, Google's social networking site. Almost unknown in Ireland, Orkut had spread by word of mouth and developed big followings in Brazil, India and Pakistan and, partly because of this demographic distribution, the International Relations forum back then was very, very wild.
On Orkut it was very easy to quickly build a new profile, so along with thousands of members listed by their real names we had hundreds more under fake names. There was a member called Roko who claimed to be a dog and complained that the moderators of the forum were discriminating against him for anti-dog prejudice. Another member created a 'Mrs Roko' profile with a little poodle display photo, and chided Roko for not coming home to spend time with his wife!
More seriously, the ease of creating fake profiles meant that moderating the forums was very difficult as banned, abusive members would sneak back onto forums under aliases. Tensions were often high as nationalists from Pakistan and India quarreled over Kashmir in debates that collapsed into bouts of enraged name-calling. Western conservatives, freshly shocked by the apparent Muslim intolerance to the Danish cartoons controversy, gloated about Europe's cultural superiority, deriding Islam and calling for war on Iran and Pakistan. We had communists fighting anarchists, Islamists fighting hypernationalist Hindus, Brazilians and Turks fighting everyone else! We had periodic visits from a Raelian pacifist, who explained to us that gods are aliens who want us to disarm our nuclear weapons and live in peace. We had a Polish monarchist who wanted to replace democracy with feudal kingdoms. We had anti-Muslim radicals who remind me now of the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
Yet struggling in this chaos were some really great people. There were moderates of various shades whose views I tended to agree with, but also more radical members who were fun and friendly and intelligent. I was dropped into a world of ripe debate and the energetic exchange of ideas. For the first time I chatted first-hand with libertarians and anarchists, had the chance to consider their views and question them on the details. It was an incredible experience to sit at a computer in Ireland and calmly question a Pakistani Islamist in real time about his belief that Hitler was right to exterminate the Jews, or to talk pros and cons of government to an Estonian anarchist.
And it was fun! We shifted from tense debates about the Iraq War to friendly discussions about cultural differences between our different countries, sharing music videos and recommending films and books. I was invited to help moderate the community for a while and felt quite invested in it, trying hard to establish a stable middle ground where we could calm some of the tensions and keep the avenues of debate open. Orkut called its forums 'communities' and I feel we did develop into a kind of community that, like its real-world equivalent, had its little alliances and politics and tensions, along with several highly unpredictable town drunks.
This experience changed me. Exposed to new views, I felt my own assumptions sometimes give way, slowly, over years. My fellow members were impatient with arguments that lacked evidence so members would start backing up posts with links and references that they knew other members would find credible. This caused a general shift from loud-mouth claims to a more rigorous reliance on evidence, which in turn affected our own attitudes towards knowledge as we were confronted with data that challenged our opinions. The presence of political radicals with views that sometimes seemed repugnant and shocking made me more open, more tolerant, more sceptical of the norms taken for granted by me and my Irish peers.
I am not alone. Chatting about this with other members recently, several of them made similar points. Here are a few quotes:
A)I think all the fighting over here has made me a little less sensitive to emotional issues (or it may just be age), on the other hand, I try to do a little research to answer people here. That has taught me quite a few interesting things. IR has also allowed me to talk to people from across the world. So that is cool.
I think the few good debates we have had on IR (in between all the lazy name-calling), has been the best use of the internet so far.... having a serious discussion with people from across the globe is impossible without the internet and Orkut.
1) The discussions here - good or bad - broadened my point of view. I can see perspectives I wasn't able to see before.
2) My English improved. Made lots of friends from around the world all communicating in English.
3) The necessity to back up my arguments developed my curiosity and research abilities.
4) My understanding of debate concepts improved A LOT!
5) I learned how to spot bullshit better.
Nothing beats sharing ideas with people around the world. Has changed my view on a lot of things, and as many have already stated, I have become less sensitive and more tolerant, and the fact seeking in real life has pissed quite some people off. :D
I have experienced a lot of the same stuff that you guys express. Grown more tolerant and open to new ideas, increased my patience and thickened my skin. It has challenged me to question my assumptions, seek credible evidence and be sceptical of various sources.
I learned that I am not the only one who is interested in IR :)I did not have many friends who were interested in it.........and always wondered if there are really people out there who love to talk and discuss politics, current affairs of IR etc.....
And now I want to invite you to join us! Orkut in 2005 was the Wild West, but the drift of members towards Facebook has slowed the pace a lot. Individuals have dropped out without being refreshed by newcomers. The International Relations community has survived, so far, but so many other forums have stagnated that we worry a little about its future. We need new members and new ideas to keep this place we have built together alive.
It should be easy to log in to Orkut and create a simple profile, real or fake, and come find us! The International Relations community is available on this link; one of the moderators will quickly accept you. So, come join us. It's not as aggressive as it used to be, in fact most of us are quite nice! So come along and have a read, engage and debate if you feel like it. We want West and East, left and right, any sex, faith, nationality and political perspective. Keep us on our toes, we will keep you on yours :)