In the comments on my last post, a number of people made the suggestion that something about the nature of online interactions may encourage people to say things they would never say to someone’s face, or to be more impulsive in their responses, or surf on waves of free-floating anger, or what have you.
While this may sometimes be the case — for some people, in some circumstances — my initial reaction is that there are a lot of features of online conversations (on blogs or the comment threads following them, in online fora, etc.) that I find can make for better conversations than many that happen face to face.
It’s worth noting that I’m making these observations as someone who spends a great deal of time in the classroom trying to spark and facilitate conversations between students (and who finds herself in committee meetings that might be more productive if their conversations were more effective). And, I was trained within the tribe of analytical philosophers, a tribe whose members sometimes have an unhealthy appetite for conversational combat. (They might, to steal a turn of phrase from PhysioProf, make vitriol-filled exchanges in the science-y sector of the blogosphere look like a muppethugging Care Bear tea party.) Your mileage may vary.
This is not an exhaustive list, and items are not presented in order of importance.
- I can’t interrupt or get interrupted by other people in the conversation. Everyone has a textbox to type into. When contributions go up, they will be read sequentially, rather than simultaneously, so no one it talked-over or drowned out.
- I can reread what other people have said before making my own contribution. I don’t have to ask others to repeat what they’ve said — there it is on my screen.
- There’s time to think before jumping in. With blogs and fora, asynchronous participation is assumed, so there’s not pressure to have an entire conversation in 45 minutes. I appreciate time to think. I find it makes my thinking better.
- There’s also time to change my mood before jumping in. Sometimes I’m not in the right mood to really contribute something useful to a conversation on first contact. If I’m pissed off, or distracted about something else, or defensive, I can walk away from the screen for awhile and come back in a better frame of mind for engaging with the subject at hand.
- There’s little pressure to participate if you have nothing to add. Lurking is acceptable. (In contrast, it’s harder to be a lurker in a classroom discussion — especially if you’re the instructor!)
- There is pressure not to chime in with something another person in the conversation has already said. Or with a question that’s been answered, or a conjecture that’s contradicted by the facts someone else has already laid on the table (and sourced, etc.). In other words, at least in the places I participate in online conversations, there’s a pressure to pay careful attention to what other people have contributed. Personally, I like that.
- When responding to what others have said, I can quote them directly rather than relying on my memory of what I heard them say. The words are right there — if I’m going to put words in someone’s mouth, they ought to be the words that person put in the textbox in the first place. And, if I’m taking those words out of context, others in the conversation have the necessary facts to call me on it. And, I can reread those words as I’m responding to them (see #2) to make sure I’m interpreting them fairly. If I don’t understand what they’re saying, I can quote the part I don’t understand as ask for clarification. This is the kind of thing that can make discussions in online classes a whole different thing from discussions in face to face classes.
- I get visual cues about whether I’m monopolizing the conversation. I can look at how much I’ve written and see if it’s out of proportion to what others have written. I also get feedback about the right sized bite to contribute by noticing whether there a length range of contribution from others in the conversation that makes it easier for me to engage with it — long enough to spell things out in some detail, but not so long that my focus wanders. Looking at what other people in the conversation respond to can give me clues about their right sized bites. And on the screen, it’s easier to decouple the looking-at-length and reading-for-comprehension activities. In a face to face conversation, I’d have a hard time focusing on length and content simultaneously.
- I can reread what I’m saying before I hit the “submit” button. Would that I had such an editing field and button in my face to face conversations!
Part of why I like these features is that I find they make it easier for people in a conversation to really engage with each other’s contributions and to take each other seriously. To the extent that you think civility is important, this might be the kind of regard you want it to foster.