LettersSocial Interaction & Networks

Re: Virtuous Discourse; a letter to Chris Bateman

Dear Chris,

It is an hon­our to be the recip­i­ent of the first entry in what I hope will become a long series of digital let­ters, a rein­vig­or­a­tion of online con­ver­sa­tion, rather than the exchange of only the briefest of thoughts and com­ments. That we, and Alan Wil­li­am­son with us, share much of the feel­ings on the cur­rent state of the exchange of ideas on the inter­net sug­gests to me at most that there is some­thing amiss in our little corner of the web—games, philo­sophy, history—and what we want from it. To assume every­one har­bours the same mis­giv­ings feels a bit pre­sumptive, though I could be wrong. In the end, we’re mainly respons­ible for our own com­munit­ies any­way, so whether the prob­lems we are see­ing are uni­ver­sal across the inter­net or not is of little import­ance.

To get down to it, though, I think your ana­lysis is cor­rect. Blogs don’t seem to have the momentum they once had, and many other online forms of com­mu­nic­a­tion are either too private (email, instant mes­saging) our too massive and brief (Twit­ter). The plat­forms that do allow longer posts (for­ums, Face­book, Tumblr) tend to com­prom­ise their poten­tial for con­ver­sa­tion with mech­an­isms of com­pet­i­tion, pop­ular­ity, and power.

As such, I share Alan’s and your enthu­si­asm for the form of the letter—the pub­lic let­ter, that is. It com­bines the per­sonal nature and urgency of dir­ectly address­ing someone with the pos­sib­il­ity of ignit­ing a wider con­ver­sa­tion with addi­tional cor­res­pond­ents. How­ever, per­haps the reason why we have to rein­vig­or­ate the format in the first place is that a let­ter requires non-trivial effort on our part. Unlike social media, which lure us into a false sense of con­ten­ted­ness by rad­ic­ally facil­it­at­ing shal­low mini-con­ver­sa­tions, let­ters require us to sit down and for­mu­late our thoughts at length, and to act­ively reflect on our own lives and that of the addressee.

The imple­ments in ques­tion.

The gain is very con­crete, though. I believe that any­thing we put real effort into acquires a spark of energy or emo­tion, and that oth­ers will be able to appre­ci­ate that. Of course, this is pos­sible in any medium in the­ory, but where is it more likely to hap­pen? In a medium that dis­cour­ages effort by reward­ing speed and easy diges­tion, or a medium that shifts some of the bur­den of time and effort to us? The final draft of this let­ter will be hand-writ­ten using pens, ink, and note­books that I have received as gifts from my wife and my mother. They have been gath­er­ing dust in a dis­play case over the years, empty dec­or­a­tions in a life that has been more about read­ing from paper than about writ­ing on it. Per­haps that will change.

I think we are in agree­ment that we’d like to see a mod­ern-day ‘repub­lic of let­ters’, with blogs instead of sta­tion­ery, and social media instead of envel­opes, stamps, and mail. From now on, then, we can dis­pense with meta-let­ters and return to our other interests. Maybe some recent games that tickled our brains and/or hearts? Our per­haps the end­lessly fas­cin­at­ing concept of Chaos? You know I’d love to exchange ideas with you on that, and your eth­ical imple­ment­a­tion of the concept.

Until then, I wish you and yours all the best for the com­ing Winter.


This let­ter is a reply to “Vir­tu­ous Dis­course” by Chris Bate­man, and “RE Vir­tu­ous Dis­course” by Alan Wil­li­am­son.

While it is addressed to a spe­cific per­son, any­one who is inter­ested in reply­ing is free to do so and join the con­ver­sa­tion, as explained by Chris in his ori­ginal let­ter.

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