How to Win Friends and Influence Online Conversation

I’ve certainly been there before. The regrettable decision of taking a conversation too far online. All of a sudden, you’re involved in an argument online that will take up the rest of the night. Are these arguments ever winnable? Surprisingly yes, but it depends on how you're arguing and obviously with whom.

In a recent study at Cornell, professors and researchers found insights into what make people tick online, who are the people you can’t convince, and what ultimately changes a person’s mind. They used Reddit as the foreground, but this applies to almost any online forum.


Trolls and other types to avoid:

Before we talk about how to persuade people online, we should look at the types of people to avoid. Regardless of how hard we try, some people are impossible to convince.

Luckily there are a few traits that are readily apparent in people to avoid. There’s the obvious types we should look out for people who can’t even format a paragraph or are shouting in their original posts. These people were classified, rather kindly, as having high arousal. They use provocative words and come off as loud.

Lets take a look at an example:

You don't need a study to know to avoid people like this...

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps less obvious, are people with low dominion. By dominion, we mean degree of control of their words and certainty in their point of view. Low dominion words would be “sickly”, “unsure” “maybe”, whereas high dominion words are things like “complete” “finalized”, “strong.” Certainly not what I would expect, but people who show low dominion in their online conversations are less likely to be persuaded by other people's comments.

Along with low dominion, we see that people who use “our" or “we" have a very low probability of changing their mind online. The reason for their unwavering quality may be that their opinion is a part of a group identity. You’re no longer convincing them that they could be wrong about an issue but that their group affiliation was a mistake.

Types to Avoid:

  • People with low confidence
  • Posters who display a strong group affiliation and refer frequently as “we”
  • Those who are overly excited

The Influence Part

For those who are not too stubborn to be persuaded. There are a few ways to truly enlighten someone online. It starts with length, seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? But one of the strongest positive correlations seen in the study was between the receptiveness of the original poster and the length of the commentators response. Of course it's more than just a long post, a long formatted response is just the first building block.

From there, we have to look at the content of the article, one of the best predictors is what is known as “high type token ratio.” For those not well versed in metalogic and linguistics, myself included, a high type token ratio merely implies that there’s variety in word choice. We all know that guy who seems to use every word in the dictionary when he opens his mouth. A crowd of people gather around him, all nodding in agreement. The same rules apply online. Try to switch up your vocabulary and you’ll find a lot more reluctant people all of a sudden agreeing with you.

Here's an example of this being played out in a forum:

A touchy subject on privacy, well handed online

If we really want to get the reluctant types, we should also be looking at the concept of hedging. While we want to use dominant words, it's important to also convey that “we could be right”. It’s a difficult tightrope to balance, but if we use a mix of dominant language with a hint of hedging, people will feel more open to hearing our perspectives.

There are more obvious techniques such as using citations, or pointing to real life examples in your writing. Or having the support of a group of people in making a convincing argument but I’m less interested in that. We’re all aware that five people can convince someone better than one. What’s interesting is that even in the online world of Reddit, customs and social "rules" of real life play a big role.

Ways to Influence

  • High word variability: be diverse in your word choice
  • Dominion in language: show certainty and mastery of language
  • Etiquette and formatting: coherent and properly formatted texts convey expertise

Of course this only applies to Reddit, the same ideas have been seen in other forums like Facebook. But perhaps unsurprisingly Twitter follows its own rules. Generally what we typically see in the Twitter conversation is two sides that ignore each other. If you’re up for a good troll or simply want to hear your opinion echoed take it to the twittersphere, but good luck trying to sway any opinions.


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