A Voice in the Arena: Deliver Us From ‘Dollar Beer Night’ by Dr. Chad Foster

A Voice in the Arena: Deliver Us From ‘Dollar Beer Night’  

The good, the bad and the ugly of online orthodontic forums

by Chad Foster, DDS, MS, editorial director

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to speak this month at the Mother of Pearls Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is presented by the Orthodontic Pearls Facebook group. My presentation will be on my thoughts and opinions about online orthodontic forums, including Orthotown and orthodontic Facebook groups. I myself am a frequent poster and participant in these groups and have been a witness and participant in the good, the bad and the ugly of these platforms.

The good: Open source, diversity of thought, and healthy debate and criticism
In my opinion, the good on these online platforms far outweighs the bad and the ugly. As I’ve previously written, I believe these platforms are by far the most accessible and interactive means to share information and encourage diversity of thought. I also believe there is no greater way for orthodontists to engage one another in conversation and debate regarding different treatment philosophies and preferences. Most importantly, these online forums, for the most part, are completely open source. (Orthotown, however, is different: Its membership comprises only verified, licensed orthodontists and residents.)

Before the popularity of these groups, our profession was not lacking in continuing education opportunities. Within the myriad orthodontic treatment philosophies are countless study groups, meetings, courses and literature. The value of the educational content of many of these groups cannot be understated and I have benefitted greatly from several of them. Through my participation, I have also found a similar trait to these groups: Although the participants have different training and practices, for the most part they are very like-minded when it comes to the philosophy of the group. You’re not likely to spend significant time or money to join a group you don’t think highly of, or just for the exercise of being a thoughtful dissonant. In this way, while educational, they can tend to be self-serving to their own beliefs, sometimes becoming insulated, critique-free echo chambers.

The open-source format and the allowance of thoughtful criticism are the power of online groups. Those willing to leave the safety of anonymity to share their thoughts and work, and those willing to be professionals in their critique, will move us out of our insulated and political echo chambers and forward to the productive discourse that our specialty needs to evolve.

The bad: Disingenuous or unproductive criticism
There is, however, a type of criticism of a completely different nature, and it is the enemy of progressive and productive debate. I’ve previously written about it in another column, but I will summarize.

This type of criticism is not so much interested in professionally debating the actual word or work presented by the subject of the critique. With the goal of winning an argument with a caricature or “straw man” of their opponent, these critics are more interested in misrepresenting, conflating, ignoring context or even assigning viewpoints likely not even held by the person being criticized. Some go further to villainize the sharer’s motives, to claim that the sharer is taking an arrogant position of superiority by sharing, or to shame the original poster as not worthy of sharing in the first place. This type of criticism seeks to “win” by shaming and silencing the opposing viewpoint.

This type of criticism is why much of the continuing education in our profession is done in the aforementioned study clubs or professional organizations that are often nothing more than echo chambers of one-sided and unopposed biases and preferences. In these safe places, learning advances at a slower pace, free from all types of criticism, including the invaluable constructive kind. That is the practical tragedy of the bad side of online forums.

The ugly: “Dollar Beer Night”
Because of the accessibility, anonymity and open-source nature of online forums, their ugly side is always poised to make an appearance. The ugly side is when the commentary devolves from unhealthy criticism into personal insults and character attacks. I liken this side of these forums to “dollar beer night” at a sporting event.

If you’ve never been to one, dollar beer night (or, back in the day, “quarter beer night” or “10-cent beer night”) are nights when the local sports team, in an effort to boost attendance, sells a high volume of really cheap beer. This is usually done by minor league franchises or major league franchises that typically suffer poor attendance. These events are more drunken spectacle than sport. The athletes don’t want to be there; they’d rather not be subject to the nonstop jeering of the crowd and the violence that’s likely to spill onto the field. Security sure as heck doesn’t want to be there to have to police the fray.

The audience, though, is a bit diverse. Some come with no interest in the sport; they’re looking to get boozed up and exorcise their demons all over the rest of the audience and the participants on the field. Some come without much interest in drinking or the sport—they’re there to watch the entertainment from the drunken spectacle. Often, notably missing in the audience are the regular attendees who are genuinely interested in the team or sport itself. They know what the evening will be about and would rather not waste their time.

This ugly side is a turnoff for both the athletes (the person posting) and the true fan of the sport (the members of the group with a true interest in learning and thoughtful discourse). On these occasions, the event in the arena has little to do with sport at all. Despite the fantastic attendance, it is a sideshow. Dollar beer night is a lewd bacchanal that delivers cheap entertainment but is a shell of the sport’s potential.

I’ll end by reiterating that when it comes to the good, the bad and the ugly of the online orthodontic forums, the good far outweighs the bad and the ugly. Those who share their voices and work in these open-source formats do more than risk some mud on their face or a bruised ego. Their submission of content open for dissection and debate advances the necessary discussions within our specialty. They are the men and women in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt described, whether cheap beer flows onto the pitch from the stands or not.

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