Recognizing Sealioning

Author's Note: "Sealion" refers to the internet archetype/act. "Sea lion" refers to the animal. Sealions are terrible; sea lions are incredibly cute.

While recognizing why sealioning is bad is quite easy - it's only one step removed from actual interrogation techniques, after all - pinning down what makes sealioning unique tends to be a bit tougher. Indeed, sealions often trot out the defense "we're just asking questions" to defend their behavior. They attempt to hide under the banner of good faith

How, then, do you determine the difference between an honest commentator asking a question and a sealion?

Statements, Questions, And Pace

In a debate, you can be penalized for asking too many questions, especially if they have no major bearing on what the other person is saying. Those watching a debate have no interest in listening to you dismantle every tiny point; they want to see you address big points, big statements, and big questions.

Thus, the best way to avoid being a sealion is quite simple:

  1. Listen to the other person's statement.
  2. Make your own statement.
  3. Ask questions about their statement, specifically in relation to the statement you made.
  4. Ask big, relevant questions; do not nitpick without a purpose.

Sealioning is interrogation, whereas a debate is a conversation. In one, you are bombarded with questions about the smallest, inconsequential details to irritate you. In the other, you hold a conversation and exchange statements and ideas, requesting clarification where necessary.

Mob Rule

It doesn't matter how great you are at stating your position and asking interesting questions if you do it as part of a mob.

Mob rule is one of the key tenets of sealioning. A single person asking lots of questions is easily dealt with; it's annoying, but doable. Sealions, however, come in packs. They swarm over their target until blocked or responded to, and replies to a single person often involve three or four other people dogpiling onto the reply.

It's akin to being in an actual debate and having several people jump onto the stage after you respond to the other speaker's comment. There's no justifiable reason for having several spectators, most or all of which you don't know, jumping into a discussion or debate to add their voices to the opposing chorus. You can't talk in such a hostile environment.

Of course, this comes primarily from the culture of imageboards like 4chan. For a good breakdown on chan culture and its influence on online debate tactics, read A Man In Black's excellent Boing Boing piece on the subject.

Avoiding this aspect of sealioning is easy: don't jump into a comment or tweet chain unless you have a unique perspective to add and said perspective won't be brought up later in the conversation. Let people finish their discussions before jumping in.

Self-Promotion Over Understanding

The final, and ugliest, part of sealions is their total committment to self-aggrandizement. Nowhere is that clearer than when you accuse them of sealioning.

Whenever a sealion is called a sealion, they often take a thoroughly narcissistic stance. "If you can't handle logic, facts, and evidence, why are you making statements in public?" - as though their statements are logical, factual, or self-evident - is common, as is "I'm being logical, you're just emotional." The implication is that you, as a person unwilling or unable to deal with several people yelling at you over and over to educate them on basic topics, are unfit to engage in discussions of any significance.

Of course, that's patently ridiculous. Much like a baby fed something they dislike, sealions simply spit up the information you spoonfeed them if it doesn't fit their preconcieved worldviews. It's a unique blend of egotism and confirmation bias, and is one of the hallmarks of sealioning; sealions are interested only in spreading their gospel, not discussion or refuting points.

Want to avoid this sort of annoying self-love? Don't make the debate about you or your position; make it about discussing and understanding the other person's position. A person genuinely interested in conversation will attempt to "walk a mile in somebody else's shoes." If they don't understand, they ask questions. Sealions ask questions, but they miss that fundamental desire to understand somebody else's position; they are there to proselytize, nothing more.

Don't Be A Sealion

With their preachy and often-incorrect statements, dogpiling tactics, and rampant narcissism, sealions are among the worst people to encounter online. They turn postitive, good-natured discussions into a toxic, poisonous cesspools, often without actively being cruel. It's all in the intent.

Your intent when discussing something on Twitter or Tumblr shouldn't be to be "right." It should be to be to understand the other people. If you understand and disagree, state why. If you don't understand, ask questions. Operate solo, address individual points, and offer unique and constructive opposition.

Above all, value the input of others over your own. You know your mind, so learn the minds of others and broaden your horizons.

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