Two weeks from today, at ScienceOnline ’10, Dr. Isis, Sheril Kirshenbaum, and I will be leading a session called “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents”. In preparation for this, the three of us had a Skype conference last night, during which it became clear to us that there are many, many interesting issues that we could take on in this session (and that we come to the subject of online civility from three quite different perspectives).
To try to get a feel for what issues other people (besides the three of us) might want to discuss in this session (or on blogs, of whatever), I’d like to bounce some questions off of the best commenters in the blogosphere (that’s you!). And where I want to start is thinking about what assumptions might be implicit is our session title:
- Is there some special problem of online civility (vs. offline civility)?
- Is being civil online essentially the same as being civil in offline engagements (whether dialogues, debates, street fights, more unidirectional communications, or interactions not primarily aimed at communication)?
- Is being civil online fundamentally different than being civil in offline engagements? (If so, why? How?)
- Is being civil online different from being civil online, but only in degree? (Again, if so, why? How?)
- To the extent that online communities and venues for interaction reproduce the norms* off offline communities and venues for interaction in terms of expectations for civility and politeness (including agreed upon definitions of “civility” and “politeness”), is this a good thing or a bad thing? (For whom?)
*Here “norms” means “what people in the community recognize they ought to do, or not to do” rather than “whatever most people actually do”. (This is a distinction we’ve discussed before.)
That last question, of course, opens up the tempting and possibly-related subject of online spaces as an opportunity to remake the offline world. In such a project of making a new world, different people are bound to have different desiderata, at least some of them related to their different experiences of the offline world.
Which is to say, asking a question about what we think counts as civil or uncivil online is bound to prompt a response along the lines of “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?” (I first heard this question on a Bill Cosby comedy LP, but at the moment the Google-fu required to nail down which one to give a proper attribution is failing me.)
- What do we mean by “we” in these discussion of online civility?
- What does it mean to be “on the same team,” or members of the same “community,” at least from the point of view of feeling like we’re entitled to expect a certain level of regard or kind of treatment from each other?
- What are the prospects for successful coalition building across fairly significant differences (which might include differences in preferred level of “politeness” or “civility”)?
- What are the prospects for successful coalition building when the differences include not respecting other people’s feelings and/or prioritizing one’s own insulation against feeling bad above everything else?
- Are calls to be civil, discussions of tone, etc., primarily about hurt feelings? Is casting them this way dismissive, marginalizing, and/or factually incorrect?
- Are there particular issues for which you have no realistic expectation that it’s possible to discuss them civilly (either online, offline, or both)? What are they, and why do you think discussing them civilly is so frackin’ hard?
Thanks in advance for your input!