There are two types of discussions on the Internet: intelligent ones and flame wars. Flame wars are something to be avoided, and are usually banned from forums, but allowed on many websites such as news portals (note: this is not one of them :) ). Flame wars never get to the conclusion - they can't, since both warring sides refuse to understand the other and stubbornly stay to their own opinion and, when faced with something substantial from the opposition, begin insulting the other party. Naturally that means that flame wars are not only a waste of your precious time, but also hurt your feelings. A question rises - why do they start and continue? The answer lies in human psychology. If they would stop participating in a flame war, the other side would probably cheer and interpret the refusal to continue as their victory, and then influence other people to think their way as well. However, this isn't something that can't be tackled, too.
On the other hand, intelligent discussions are firstly interesting to read. Not only do they show the point of both parties, but also give interesting facts that both interest and enlighten the reader, making him benefit from it even if he isn't very interested in the subject. Intelligent discussions are also polite, thus not hurting anyone's feelings and limited to the subject of discussion. They are usually encouraged by administrators as well. However, they are a lot less common than flame wars, namely because it's a lot more difficult to maintain one and have everything you say backed up. But they influence the reader a lot more.
So how does one get involved in an intelligent discussion, get away from flame wars and start their own intelligent discussions? Let's start from the top. Let's take an example of comments about an article. Let's say they are only starting. If you want it to evolve into an intelligent discussion, you have to ask yourself:
- Are you interested in the subject?
- Do you have enough experience to talk about the subject?
- Can you back up your claims in any way?
- Will you be able to listen to the opponents, if any should appear?
- Are you willing to spend more time than usual both writing and reading the posts in question?
- Can you refrain from offending others, even if you get offended yourself?
- Can you write in such a way that everything you say would be substantial, backed up, polite and understandable?
- Is there any chance that you could in the end agree (at least partially) to your opponent?
If you answer "no" to at least one of the questions, you should consider not participating or stopping the discussion, if it was started already. If you answered "yes" to everything, you can continue. First off, when you state your opinion, you should list every supporting idea and describe them thoroughly. Remember: length is not an issue. If the other participants are not willing to read your lengthy response, what are the chances they will be willing to respond with the same amount of thought as you have written? However, listing too many points and making your posts too long isn't optimal as well because of two things: 1) you'll start a "quote war" because the other party will want to have a counterargument for everything you listed. That adds even more unnecessary length to the response, making posts more difficult to read for everyone, and 2) you might have all your ideas exhausted after one post. While not necessarily a thing to avoid, it's easier for yourself if you don't list everything in one go, since you won't run out of ideas in the long run, and having more ideas than your opponent usually makes you more convincing. But that also has a negative side - the opposition might have exhausted their ideas before you had an opportunity to state all of your ones. To avoid such situations, it's best to list up to 3 points when discussing - that will also cost less research for you.
When faced with a lengthy response from the opposition, don't start a quote war yourself. Quote mechanisms in forums are made to remind readers about something that was written a long time ago, not to show you what the opponent has just said. Instead of adding a quote that would clog up your post, use plain text, for example, instead of writing "Quote: 'I have read this article and it's not convincing at all.' What makes you think it's not convincing?", you can shorten it into "Talking about the lack of convincingness of the article, what makes you think like that?" - you will save three lines and a divider that don't fit in your post.
When you get a response to your opinion, you should ask yourself the same questions once again, but this time directed to the opponent: are they interested in the subject? Are they familiar with it? Do they back up their claims? Are they a known flame war starter? Is their post substantial? Do they pay enough attention to proper grammar and spelling? If not, you should think if the person is likely to continue the discussion (people saying "no its not ur stupid" are obviously not worth your attention at all - unless you're a moderator, of course), and then explain what they do wrong and ask them to write proper responses - not everyone who doesn't reply properly isn't capable of doing that. If that doesn't help, ignore them, as their posts will be of no value to the discussion, and resist the urge to insult them.
If you get a proper response, investigate it. If it's backed up, do take your time to check how strong is it. You can often find that the opponent listed only a part of the whole picture - naturally, the one that is beneficial to him, so you can then raise the other one. If you can find that their point is outdated or not valid, even better - you'll be able to nullify their argument. If it's rock solid, you should search for other arguments - best if they are as substantial as the ones the opponent has given. Make sure that you express that you understand the opponent - that shows your serious intentions.
If you see that there are no other participants that are willing to discuss the matter in detail, you should either wait until one appears or (if there are a lot of trolls - opposite of intelligent discussion participants) quit the discussion. You should do that if you end up in a flame war, too. If you decide to quit the discussion, tell people about it - they might as well come to their senses and start a proper discussion, and the opposition won't be able to declare their victory, since you have clearly stated that you aren't participating for a lack of proper opponents. If they try to insult you and say that you're a "coward", ignore them - obviously they are trying to turn you into a troll yourself. When not fed, trolls die, so after some time they should go away, and if a worthy opponent comes, the intelligent discussion can continue.
There are also discussions when the opposition is non-existent. In those cases, the subject will only be seen from one side (remember - there is never something absolutely right or wrong). When participating in such a discussion, make sure you still keep professional - the Internet is huge, and it's possible that people who don't agree with the common view will show up sooner or later. If you fall back to trolling, they won't read anything and will think 101 reasons why the common view is incorrect, but won't express them because they would be eaten by every other participant of the discussion; however, if you keep professional, the reader might get convinced that their view is actually incorrect and see the other side. Either way, they won't post, but that doesn't mean they don't exist!
If you end up being the reader that doesn't agree with the common view, you should start a two-way discussion. Make sure you don't call everyone's attention - they won't agree with you, at least from the start, so start mildly - for example, say that overall the common view is correct, but there is one thing that should be noted, and give it. After it gets discarded, do a usual check for intelligent opponents and give them a few more arguments that prove your view, and it should then evolve into an intelligent two-way discussion.
Finally, one thing to remember is to take your time when replying - read through what you've written to make sure you don't leave any typos (in fact, I've already made two typos in this sentence, but I read through and corrected them) or any flaws in your reasoning, because everything you say can be used against you. One more thing to note is that when things go completely out of hand, you can always use the neat "Report" button available on most forums. In conclusion, remember the points of an intelligent discussion, and you should have a lot better time discussing than others.
I'll finish the article with a few examples: one of the best intelligent two-way discussions I saw recently was about the future energy sources, posted under Phoronix's article on Chernobyl; a good example of a one-way discussion is about the DRM of Ubisoft over at Celestial Heavens; an example of a satisfying, (mostly) one-way discussion about bloom at BeyondUnreal forums. And lastly, a bad example, one post about PhysX on GeForce 7: it's an almost perfect bad example as it has a quote hell, insults, overused style, challenging behaviour and overall doesn't bring anything new to the discussion. A simple repeat would have done the trick better, but alas...
And remember, if you don't follow these points... People will definitely have a Data moment at you: "Could you please continue the petty bickering? I find it most intriguing."