I came across an article about a study that looked at why we are so much ruder online than we are in person. They basically boiled it down to the freeing nature of anonymity, a lack of consequences (or at least a failure to recognize that real world consequences are possible) and the fact that many online communities inflate our sense of self. The “like” buttons, diggs, etc. feed into our egos. Who doesn’t feel good when someone “likes” our post, photo, etc? So if we are really truly honest, Facebook, our blogs, etc. are, to a certain extent, vanity projects. In my case blogging, using Facebook, commenting on other blogs, etc are also a tools.
However, the article misses some other deeper questions. I would like to see a deeper analysis of this issue. To what degree is physical contact important to controlling unsocial, rude, and/or offensive verbal communication? There are lots of studies like this but most were done before the Internet even existed. Time to redo some of them1 with an Internet component. To what extent does it control our expression of emotion? Could this study (and others like it) indicate that the majority of humans really need community, a physically present community, to keep us in check? Or is it simply because of some kind of disconnect between our perception of the “virtual” world versus the physical? I.e., is there some kind of difference in our psychological construct of the Online world versus the Physical world? I would posit this to be true. Back when I was teaching ethics, it never failed to amaze me many of my students could not see that breaking into someone’s house, hanging out and using the homeowner’s stuff was no different, ethically speaking, than breaking into someone’s server or network, hanging out and using the owner’s resources. Their excuse was always one was virtual and the other was “real”. No harm, no foul. I couldn’t get them to understand that some things were “mala en se” or “wrong in itself” regardless of consequences. They had no problem thinking this about some real world unethical behavior, but to them the virtual world was a whole new ballgame. I don’t think our culture (or any cultures for that matter) has caught up so that the post-Internet generations were not taught to apply their real world ethical framework to online behavior. However, I think it is more complicated than “if no one is watching, people will not behave” 2, or is it?
This article also got me to thinking about my own online activity. For me it serves several different purposes. First, I don’t have a lot of social interaction in my life3. Second, I also do it because I am an introvert. Online communication allows me to control how much exposure to other people I get. If I’m just too tired and can’t handle dealing with other people, I don’t have to. That’s not a pretty truth, I know. Third, I communicate better in writing than I do in person (at least I think I do). Fourth, it allows me to find people of like mind anywhere in the world. So instead of being limited to people in my neighborhood, church, kid’s school, etc. the world is opened up to me. Furthermore, it allows me to keep in touch with friends and family who live very far away and whom I would rarely get a chance to talk to otherwise. Fifth, it’s a great creative outlet that allows me to be with my kids at the same time. Sixth, it provides me with introspection.
The introspection afforded me online is much more in depth than real world interaction allows. When I’m writing here, I go over things repeatedly, re-drafting, re-thinking, trying to be honest about what I need and want to say, to the factual truth of what I am writing about and to the perceptions of my readers. I think about who might be reading my blog, how they might perceive things and what that says about what I’m saying. I think about consequences and if what I have to say is worth facing those consequences. Not to say I am pandering to my readers, but that I take into account how the readers are likely to understand what I am saying. For example, if I am writing something and using really angry, filthy language I will sometimes back off on that in re-draft because the point I am trying to make might not be heard if it isn’t said in a way that is somewhat palatable. And I think this is something mature people do in face-to-face communication too. How many times have you started out in an angry way, only to have the other person completely ignore the second part of what you said, the part that you felt was most important. Once someone is angry, hurt or sad, it is much harder to reason with them. This has been a hard, hard lesson for me to learn. So for me this blog reinforces positive communication behavior. I don’t know if this is true for most people. I suspect not. It is far too easy for people to dash off some quick post in anger and then just hit Enter. And perhaps that’s another point–the technology makes it so easy to communicate a lot in very short period of time.
Not to say that I’m a model of good behavior online. I had a spat with an old acquaintance online (on Facebook of course) about politics and religion. I wanted to just be happy for him and his beautiful new baby, to hear about his day to day life and to share those kind of positive things. Instead it was a constant stream of libertarian and evangelical4 offensive vitriol and constant challenge of my own political posts. I don’t put the full text of my posts on Facebook because I recognize that some of my friends and family are on the other side of the aisle. I only post the title and part of the first sentence or two. People don’t have to click through and read it. In fact, my entire family lives far away and they, for the most part, only read my personal posts so they can keep in touch with what is going on with me. I’m okay with that. He had to read my blog and respond on Facebook. And I couldn’t resist responding to his posts on Facebook.
I started out trying to honestly engage him and understand where he was coming from. I tried to see if we had any common cause. And on the surface we did agree on some things. But once I dug deeper it became impossible. He was constantly baiting me, purposely riling me with talk about “revolution”, “second amendment remedies” or saying horrible things about the President. When I would counter his posts on Facebook, his libertarian friends would often pile on. Our final conversation was over gun rights and/or the upcoming election. He basically baited me by talking about the coming Revolution (he’s a Paulite) and hinting at treason5. I called him on it and basically said (paraphrasing), ‘I wish a mutha would because my gun is just as deadly as his and if he thinks Liberals will sit at home let him and his buddies commit treason, he is sorely mistaken’. He responded that I was being threatening and violent. Really? Wow. I promptly unfriended him. Silly me, treasonous talk is where I draw the line on friendship and nothing, I mean nothing, gets me riled up faster.
Could I have communicated better with my friend? Absolutely. Should I have left emotion out of it? Yes. But I never purposely provoked him, sicked my friends on him, or tried to manipulate him. I started out with good intentions but he couldn’t play nice in the sandbox. I wasn’t so nice in my response to the provocation and I take responsibility for that. I should have been the grownup. So I think online conversations do have the potential deteriorate faster due to a bunch of things–anonymity, lack of consequences (or perceived consequences)6, lack of physical communication7, inflated sense of self (in the extreme delusional thinking), neediness for social interaction, the ease and speed of communication, the widening of the social network8, and the feedback loop and resulting in amplification9.
I’m going to try to be more mindful of how I “speak” to people online. Maybe modeling good behavior will encourage others to do the same? What do you think? Is it a waste of time to try to even be polite online? Have you caught yourself being rude online and regretted it?
1. Many of the early studies were very unethical because subjects were not completely informed as to the nature of the study and subjects were physically or emotionally hurt. Modern research ethics do not allow this and no legitimate researcher would ever step over those boundaries (it would be a career killer in academia and possibly a crime). A classic example of this kind of abuse were the Milgram Experiments. [back]
2. This is usually one of the first steps toward ethical behavior for children. We first obey our parents because we don’t want to disappoint them and/or be punished by them. But if we didn’t have the threat of being caught, it was much easier to misbehave. That’s why it is said that “Character is what you do when no one is watching”. I personally could never get away with anything. The universe made sure I was caught every single time. For example, I skipped school only one time during my K-12 education. I got caught and had to go to detention. You know what I did on my skip day? I spent it doing volunteer work at the Hispanic center in downtown Harrisburg, PA. Yep, I was a wild and crazy gal. If I can’t get away with something like that, I can’t get away with anything.[back]
3. And before you tell me to go out and meet people….you try and do that working 45 hours a week as a financially struggling single mother of two kids, and then get back to me on how easy it is. Plus, I’m a shy introvert. You might meet me and think I’m not, but that’s not who I am inside. I can fake extroversion like a mutha but it is absolutely exhausting for me.[back]
4. I still can’t wrap my head around how those two things go together in any way, shape or form. I mean how can someone claim to be a libertarian (which by definition means socially liberal, fiscally conservative and deeply suspicious of governmental tyranny) yet also be perfectly okay with laws that force transvaginal ultrasounds on women or that force rape and incest victims to carry a baby to term? Or demand that government get out of lives and yet support incursions of government sponsored religion into our lives? I don’t understand the whole “Liberty for me but not for thee” kind of mentality. Do only male libertarians have liberty? Do they think that the incursion of government sponsored religion is okay so long as it is THEIR religion? [back]
5. My ex was a big fan of Ron Paul and is real big on those “Second Amendment remedies”. So I’ve had these kind of discussions many, many times. I consider myself a patriot. I would fight and die on behalf of my country and I would revolt if I thought my country needed saving from destructive internal forces AND that was the only option left. However, I don’t think this country is anywhere near bad enough to revolt against the government. Our system still works, albeit slower than we want and need it to and certainly more corrupt than it should be, but it works. If we lived in some place like Nigeria, Libya, Liberia, Cuba, etc where real dictatorships exist, you bet your ass I would be a revolutionary. In the U.S. the idea is not only unnecessary, it’s dangerous to our stability and undermines the very system that keeps us from being a Liberia, Cuba, etc. Talk of revolution in the U.S. right now is like wanting to amputate a limb to cure a sprain. And all this talk of revolution has gotten really, really heated since the supposed Kenyan Muslim Usurper was elected to the White House. Funny that. [back]
7. As primates we rely a great deal on gestural, facial, and paralinguistic communication cues. Paralinguistic cues include things like grunting, breathing patterns, modulation of pitch, volume and clarity of voice. We also rely on smell (not consciously, of course), size comparisons (would I argue with a 6 ft 5 in man in real life as readily as I would with him online, probably not). I am very sensitive to the non-verbal communication cues. I can often tell when someone is angry, lying, uncomfortable, etc but trying not to show it. This lack of visual cues causes us to misunderstand intention, emotion, etc and it also allows us to hide our own emotions and intentions. It’s certainly easier to write something naughty online than to say it in person because no one can see you blush. Shame and/or embarrassment is amplified when seen, isn’t it? [back]
8. I can now communicate with hundreds of people in a single post–this was impossible before the Internet unless you were on radio or TV and with those only a limited number of people had access and control of their broadcast content. [back]
9. With radio and television communication is one way. They broadcast out. Now, we have very fast two way communication which can create a feedback loop. Almost like a virtual mob. One person starts it, but others join and get caught up in it. Then the frenzy starts and people behave in ways they would never on their own. Maybe the mob mentality is connected with online rudeness? Hmmmmmm, something to think about. [back]