Friday, April 12, 2013

Civility and the "Real"/"Virtual" Dichotomy

I found this article somewhat interesting:
"Rudeness and throwing insults are cutting online friendships short with a survey on Wednesday showing people are getting ruder on social media and two in five users have ended contact after a virtual altercation.

As social media usage surges, the survey found so has incivility with 78 percent of 2,698 people reporting an increase in rudeness online with people having no qualms about being less polite virtually than in person.
One in five people have reduced their face-to-face contact with someone they know in real life after an online run-in."
I've emphasized a few words in this snippet, as I question the suggestion that what happens online, when humans interact, is not "real," particularly when compared to what happens offline.

And, I credit Nathan Jurgenson, of Cyborgology blog, with articulating the "digital dualism fallacy" in a way that has better informed my own thoughts about the issue.  Misty at Shakesville has also written about how threats against women are sometimes trivialized by others saying, well, it's "just the Internet," as though the threats are therefore less real, problematic, or concerning than "real life" threats.

I would contend that when people are rude online, they at least have asshole-y thoughts offline (and don't we all, really, to some degree?). Online venues merely give people an appropriate context to express those thoughts. How many day-to-day "real life" forums is it socially appropriate, say, to just start spontaneously talking about politics, showing pics of your cat, or showing solidarity with a group of people?  Social media can allow people to transcend the boundaries of face-to-face interactions and, at least in some respects, enable us to present our more authentic and deeper selves.

The surprise to me, therefore, isn't that people can be more mean online than in person, but that people seem surprised by the phenomenon - or as though this behavior is indicative of how Internet makes people less authentic, rather than more.

I generally like Facebook.  It's true that some people post "hey, how 'bout the weather" status updates that are more akin to face-to-face small talk, but I think it's utterly fascinating, telling, and informative to find out, say, that so many of my heterosexual friends and people I barely even know support marriage equality. It also gives me a heads-up on people who express bigoted opinions, which I don't think I'd have ever known otherwise. And, unlike some entitled folks, I 100% support the freedom for people to friend and un-friend people for whatever reasons they wish!

In my experience, whether people behave civilly on Internet often seems to be determined by several factors. One, being "new" to Internet written communication, and therefore not as familiar with the lack of facial and tonal cues, can make many people quick to see an enemy and bad faith lurking behind every comment.  Other factors contributing to civility would, I contend, include whether people have a basic respect for boundaries and rules of a forum, whether people are regularly exposed to people who disagree with them, the extent to which aggression is tolerated by other conversation participants and moderators, and what people think or know they can "get away with" in certain forums. 

The article continues, with some solutions to rude behavior:
" [Joseph] Grenny[, from the company who conducted the survey,] suggested peer-to-peer pressure was needed to enforce appropriate behavior online with people told if out of line.

He said three rules that could improve conversations online were to avoid monologues, replace lazy, judgmental words, and cut personal attacks particularly when emotions were high.

'When reading a response to your post and you feel the conversation is getting too emotional for an online exchange, you're right! Stop. Take it offline. Or better yet, face-to-face,' he said."
While I agree that codes of civility can and should be enforced, and am intrigued by the concept of peer pressure (rather than a top-down) moderation approach, to encourage people to stay within acceptable bounds of behavior online, I disagree that taking a conversation offline and face-to-face is automatically a "better" solution.
For some people it can be.  But, in addition to physical safety concerns, I would add that some people, including myself, believe they best express themselves via the written word. Indeed, the last thing I want to do if I'm feeling angry or hurt by someone online is to sit down with them face-to-face and "talk it out."

As a pretty strong introvert, I think it's pretty easy for extroverts or those who express themselves best orally to dominate face-to-face conversations, which I don't think is a process that necessarily results in de-escalation or mutual understanding. And, in many cases, face-to-face situations aren't feasible. But, most of all, I simply prefer the time and space that written communication gives me to step away from a conversation and then, later, to more adequately and thoughtfully express myself than if I were speaking off the cuff and in the moment.
The advice to take a conversation offline and face-to-face seems to be grounded back in an assumption that written correspondence is maybe less authentic than face-to-face, oral communication.

To end here on a somewhat random note, I recently had one of those early morning half-awake/half-asleep "brilliant thoughts" where I wondered, maybe if when we die our consciousness somehow lives on, cybernetically, in the communications we've submitted on Internet. And then, my last thought before going back to sleep was, "Damn, I should be writing more L Word posts and fan fiction."

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