Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.


  1. #1 Karen
    January 4, 2010

    In online conversations, I also like having the time to get excited about a really good new idea. Face-to-face, I tend to withhold judgment until I really understand the idea, and that can come across as negative. But given a chance to read and think before responding, I can react appropriately.

  2. #2 Katherine
    January 4, 2010

    And yet people still take other’s comments out of context, or misunderstand them and jump to conclusions rather than ask clarification.

    I totally agree that better conversations are had online.

  3. #3 cicely
    January 4, 2010

    I agree with all of these points, and would add one more: that you can be having this conversation, with all of these advantages, while doing other things as well. The episodic nature of internet conversations means that you can be having a dozen such conversations, or more, and still do other things in meatspace. And all without looking inattentive or distracted in any of them.

    Such a deal!

  4. #4 Miki Z
    January 5, 2010

    Time to think and to check facts, calculations, assumptions, etc. is a large factor in why I prefer the online format for conversations in math. There are frequently (justified) leaps of logic that some participants will need or want to check that others will either already know or be willing to accept. Just as frequently, at least in an educational context, careful line-by-line reasoning is the point, and the ability to retain and review that reasoning is stupendous.

    I do find, though, that for people completely new to a topic it can stifle conversation for the same reasons. Adult students, in particular, seem hesitant about displaying “too much” ignorance, and having it be perpetually on display can exacerbate their reticence. Tight moderation is sometimes necessary, and the ability to delete comments or even entire topics.

  5. #5 Grant
    January 5, 2010

    Most of what I’d say has already been said, but I’d add that these things work best (for me) with blogs that have moderate traffic. In order to contribute meaningfully, having too many comments is too much work and often too disorientating.

    Likewise, for this to work (for me) the comments threads need to be active for several days at least. (Personally, it’s a gripe I have that blogs tend to close down conversations early, long story.)

    Personally, face-to-face conversations are better, but on-line ones give you time to think about the issues for yourself, which can be a win (the thinking itself is one of the things you get out of it).

    Finding like-minded people can be a positive too if your thing is very niche. You’re exploiting the power of the ‘net as it were; locally there might be few with your perspective, but on the ‘net there will be many, just geographically scattered.

    It can be a useful way of solo office workers (esp. the self-employed) taking a break chatting, although speaking for myself, it’s never quite the same unless you’ve met the person IRL or have written to them enough to get a “feel” for who they are. On that note, some people never really show their personality on-line.

    Better get back to work…

    But if only I could get my own readers to de-lurk!!

  6. #6 Jim Thomerson
    January 5, 2010

    I’m not sure this is a virtue, but one can engage in conversation on line with people one would not care to know on a personal basis.

  7. #7 Katherine
    January 5, 2010

    Grant brings up some good points! I never thought about the number of participants, because I equate “online conversations” with instant messaging type conversations only. I mean, I might throw a comment out there on a particular blog post and then forget to return (frequently happens on scienceblogs as there are so many blogs). Though I did notice joining a large guild in an MMO I play that I felt like noone was responding to me and all carrying on their own conversations. My new, smaller guild I’m usually one of the chattiest, because there are so few people on I know I’ll get some attention. On a blog the problem of having too many commenters means that you have to read all the comments on each post before you comment (#6 above) and that can be arduous.

  8. #8 yolande
    January 6, 2010

    @Point 3 ” There’s time to think before jumping in. ”

    This is very important I think and perhaps it comes with age and experience; knowing when to take time out and consider one’s response, before jumping in with perhaps an over – emotional reaction to something someone else has written. Perhaps it is wisdom knowing when to comment and when not to, or knowing when it is best to keep quiet and do some research first and think, or deliberate on what your response will be.

    Unfortunately I think a lot of young people are now conditioned to the bombardment of instant information from multiple sources, simultaneously, and in their elusive search for instant gratification do not think out their responses in a considered manner beforehand and this often leads to online confrontation.

    There is also the aspect of different personalities. Some are extraverted and bombastic in their comments, others are more reserved, whilst others are narcissistic and attention seeking and some are just plain sociopathic. Each of us will react to these personality types according to our own. Wisdom again, dictates whether or not you know which types to avoid and which types to engage.

  9. #9 EJ
    January 6, 2010

    True but…
    emotions and nuances are so easily missed or misunderstood – sarcasm, humor, irony, sympathy.
    Perhaps it’s not better or worse to have online conversations – it depends on the subject and context. These conversations lack emotional depth and connection.

    @8 unless we know and recognize the personalities you describe from face to face interactions I think it would be hard to know when/how to engage/disengage online.

  10. #10 Kriss
    January 9, 2010

    True, there is greater opportunity for self-management than there can be in face to face conversations, although people don’t always take advantage of that.

    I like that things like race, class and gender are less immediately evident on the web. People often mistake me for a man (and are perplexingly likely to blame me for this, as if I’m responsible for their assumptions).

    As a humanities graduate and ex proofreader and EFL teacher, I have a strong preference for correct and well-written English. TXT-SPK drives me up the wall, and even though a couple of my friends who have doctorates or are otherwise intelligent use it all the time, it’s hard for me to fight the gut reaction that the person can’t use English properly.

  11. #11 Katherine
    January 11, 2010

    Kriss, people regularly assume that I am male – when I’m playing my MMO on my character named “Katherine”. They even assume I’m male more often on that character than on my character named “Mittenz”. It’s fascinating.