Now that the broken windows theory of crime has been experimentally validated – disorderly streets really do make people more likely to steal – Jason Kottke wonders if the theory also applies to online spaces:
Much of the tone of discourse online is governed by the level of moderation and to what extent people are encouraged to “own” their words. When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that that sort of thing is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same. Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they’re discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether.
Unchecked comment spam signals that the owner/moderator of the forum or blog isn’t paying attention, stimulating further improper conduct. Anonymity provides commenters with immunity from being associated with their speech and actions, making the whole situation worse…how does the community punish or police someone they don’t know? Very quickly, the situation is out of control and your message board is the online equivalent of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, inhabited by roving gangs armed with hate speech, fueled by the need for attention, making things difficult for those who wish to carry on useful conversations.
But what about a site’s physical appearance? Does the aesthetic appearance of a blog affect what’s written by the site’s commenters? My sense is that the establishment of social norms through moderation, both by site owners and by the community itself, has much more of an impact on the behavior of commenters than the visual design of a site but aesthetics does factor in somewhat. Perhaps the poor application of a default MT or WordPress template signals a lack of care or attention on the part of the blog’s owner, leading readers to think they can get away with something. Poorly designed advertising or too many ads littered about a site could result in readers feeling disrespected and less likely to participate civilly or respond to moderation. Messageboard software is routinely ugly; does that contribute to the often uncivil tone found on web forums?
My sense is that Jason is right: messy, haphazard sites send an implicit message to commenters. I’d also argue, though, that there’s a proliferation of rudeness online because the form of interaction is inherently more impersonal. It’s now become clear that many of our moral intuitions are rooted in emotional reactions to the emotions of others. In other words, you’re nice to people because you know that if you’re not nice then you’ll make them sad, and their sad face will make you sad. This emotional cycle, of course, depends in large part on body language and facial expressions and the fusiform gyrus and mirror neurons and all the rest. The human brain evolved to socialize in person.
However, when we interact online, all those normal moral instincts are tweaked. There are no live faces, just anonymous signatures. And so it’s easy to forget that the other person is actually a person, full of emotions and feelings, and not just a big fat ignorant idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is completely wrong about everything.