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The Art Assignment's "Case for Kanye West" video:

In which John Green discusses the poor quality of civil discourse online (and off), the lyrics to the Kanye West song "Power," what's so wrong with the way we're talking at each other these days, and Hank's + sign proposal to maybe make life in the comments section more bearable.

Hank's hankchannel video about gaming the comment algorithm:

Hank's vlogbrothers video about race and racism in the U.S.:

Study exploring the ways that poor quality comments affect Internet experience for creators and consumers alike:

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I'm in the office. 

So, I don't know if you've seen Sarah's brilliant Art Assignment video, The Case for Kanye West. But after watching it, I've been listening more carefully to Kanye's music and there's a lyric in the song Power that's really stuck with me. It goes:

"They say I was the abomination of Obama's nation. Well, that's a pretty bad way to start a conversation." 

I think the grammatical ambiguity of "that's a pretty bad way to start a conversation" is important here. 

Side note: don't tell me Kanye didn't mean any of this because he's not that smart or whatever. One, authorial intent doesn't matter, and two, Kanye is that smart. I mean sometimes he's an offensive buffoon, but so are a lot of smart people. 

But right, so saying you're the abomination of Obama's nation is indeed a pretty bad way to start a conversation - right - because you're calling someone a name. You're also using cleverness to make yourself seem correct. But "they say I was the abomination of Obama's nation" is also a pretty bad way to start a conversation. 

I mean first off you're using a nonspecific "they" as a way of constructing a false us vs. them dichotomy. Also, most Kanye haters weren't actually calling him the abomination of Obama's nation, they were criticizing other things about him and his work. But then, Kanye simplified and repackaged those arguments in a way that made it seem ridiculous.  

You see all these bad ways of starting conversations a lot in contemporary discourse. Think of all the gotcha moments in the 24-hour political news cycle and the use of diminutives and name calling.

I mean from Canadian Cruz to Crooked Hillary to Lying Donald to Barry Obama - they all undermine and demean people in a way that's like a little too vague to defend yourself against.

There's the rhetorical questions, the certainty of one's own opinion, wit masquerading as accuracy, the sharing of one study you read about once instead of doing the research to learn what the bulk of evidence currently points to, the presumption that those who disagree with you are merely wrong. The list goes on and on. 

My favorite at the moment is where you accuse a voice you don't like of being shrill or shouty or aggressive even when it isn't, which is a tactic so meta that even Kanye couldn't parse it. 

I do this too by the way. Like the other day, I said on Twitter that 40% of US gun sales involved no background checks which turns out to be a totally unsupported statistic. But by the time I did the relevant research, the tweet was already out there furthering the ceaseless spread of misinformation. So, I don't get a pass on this one. 

But research shows that rude, aggressive, and inaccurate comments don't just lower the overall quality of conversation, they also make people feel more angry and afraid. 

And while I think Kanye's right about all these bad ways of starting conversations, they're effective ways to start conversations because we all feel compelled to respond. Like hostility generally gets answered with hostility. 

And when the outrage button gets pressed inside of us, we want to share and reply and do all the other things that the architecture of social media currently values. So, trolling is poisonous, but it works.

That's why the front page of most YouTube comment sections doesn't contain the most interesting or generous or nuanced comments, but instead, the most controversial ones. 

And I know those controversial comments get replies, but I don't think they change anyone's mind. Like screaming at each other is a bad way of listening, but I think it's also a bad way of getting heard. 

Now I realize that's easy for me to say since I already have a platform, but I truly don't think anyone has ever changed their mind because they were called an idiot. 

Hank, I really loved your video last week about race and racism in the United States, but the comment section was a disaster. Until, you made a hankschannel video asking people to simply reply with a plus sign to comments they agreed with. 

That immediately tricked the YouTube comment algorithm into valuing generous and thoughtful comments, which in turn, made commenting far more civil and productive. 

It's a small thing and it wasn't perfect, but it made a real change in that online conversation and I know I'll be using the plus sign reply from here on out. 

Nerdfighters, if you have other suggestions for how we might improve the quality of conversations, both here and in the wider world, I'll be in comments doing my best to listen. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.