#scio10 preparation: Is there a special problem of online civility?

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!

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By davidbaer (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

"What do you mean we, Kemosabe?"

I thought it was from Lenny Bruce's Thank You Mask Man, but I think I'm wrong....

I remember the punchline being more like

""what's this 'we' s**t, white man?"

All very interesting aspects of civility on the Web (which is probably gone forever!) for discussion; but I hope you might also have some discussion of the legal concerns involved; i.e. not only what might a blogger write that could constitute libel or defamation, but more thorny, what responsibility does a blogger bear for comments published that border on same -- over the yrs. I've heard varying answers to this (of course suing is one thing, and proving in court is another -- and I realize you're not lawyers, but maybe you've looked into this).

Liz @1, you're probably right. It's likely I'm eliding this with the bit from the Cosby routine where the Lone Ranger tells Tonto to go to town and Tonto (who always gets beaten up in town) tells the Lone Ranger to go to hell.

ARJ @2, I'd be happy for the folks who know the state of the law (settled and unsettled) on online libel and defamation and such to weigh in on these issues. As more of an ethicist, my focus tends to be on how things ought to be (and how we get there from here) rather than on what the law allows and forbids.

This seems to be the Cosby routine I remember that featured Tonto prominently:

As for the relevant topic, one thing that I've not generally seen in discussions of online civility is that it's a sign of respect for both your own arguments and the time of those you've engaged with if you actually get your facts straight. Since i write regularly about both climate change and evolution, I frequently come across people who passionately argue based on false premises. In many cases, it's laughably easy to look up accurate information, but these people either a) couldn't be bothered; or b) would rather operate with inaccurate information that supports their arguments.

Regardless of the reason, i find it one of the more frustrating breaches of civility online, worse than simply throwing around insults, because it pollutes the entire dialog, while insults can simply be ignored.

There is also another session devoted to the legal questions, so I'd prefer you three do not get bogged down in those but rather discuss some of the questions you put in this post. Very systematic, I like ;-)

I'm pretty sure the Tonto "What you mean 'we'?" line predates both Cosby and Lenny Bruce. I seem to remember hearing it in high school, back in the '50s.

My daughter's high school principal had a neat phrase she used in stating her goals in teaching behavior, civility, etc. She wanted each student to develop "a sense of the appropriate" for different circumstances. In both online and offline situations, differing speech or behavior may be appropriate or inappropriate in differing contexts. Learning what is appropriate when is essential for getting along with others, both online and off.

I think that there IS a special problem of online civility vs. offline civility. People seem to feel much freer to insult each other, call people names, etc., in online forums than they would face to face. Just look at the online comments for almost any Washington Post story. (The NY Times, by contrast, screens online comments for libelous remarks, obscenity, etc., and thus maintains an atmosphere of relatively civil discourse.) I recently experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I called someone out for posting a rude comment about healthcare reform on Facebook. Much to my amazement, I received an apology from him via e-mail a little while later.

By Elia Ben-Ari (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

Of course, I framed it differently, but mostly as a vehicle for putting all the relevant links in one place.... ;-)

The large majority of Internet users use fake names. So perhaps they feel less responsibility for what is said under the fake name than they would face-to-face under their real name. I also think persons who lack the intellectual resources to support their point of view tend to become uncivil because that is all they can think to do.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

I don't think civility precludes shooting your opponent's argument so full of holes that it looks like a spider web .

Stupid is stupid, no matter what sort of box you put it in.

By Katharine (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

It is also worth noting that an emphasis on civility can also be used to avoid (or avoid having to) deal with the *substance* of an argument, especially given that there can be widely diverging views of what "civil" means. Furthermore, if a person or group feels that their civil attempts to resolve an issue (or even bring an issue to people's attention) are being ignored, to what extent should they feel obliged to remain civil, or to follow the norms of civil discourse? For that matter, can incivility be an acceptable tactic for letting the other side know how invested you are in bringing their attention to your problem, or how important you see your problem as being (especially if you feel marginalized by the existing civil discourse)?

By Brian York (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to discuss this.

I have a number of issues to raise and other commentators have mentioned this before elsewhere, that many scientific blogs are very US centric and dare I say, Northern Hemispherist. Many of us do NOT live in the US, NOR aspire to US cultural "norms" nor do we aspire to the same level of so-called "free speech" that Americans are so fond of harping on about.

I find the levels of racist, misogynist, and homophobic comments emanating from the US mainly, particularly disturbing, as we in other countries have had laws against this behaviour in RL for many decades and for those of us who read almost everything online, it appears that the US is dragging the chain in this area.

The other important issue is "civility" and online manners. Different cultures have differing views on this, but I would like to see a general increase in civility and manners towards other commentators on blogs and the bloggers themselves. To me, "real" discourse can only happen when people are respectful of others and their opinions. If you don't agree, you have the right to remain silent and if you can't remain silent don't attack the person, attack the behaviour.

The other trend I see happening on all the blogs I read which attract enormous numbers of comments, is some people refuse to read through all the comments and then will start up the whole topic again, which is damned tedious and boring and turns people off commenting seriously. It also stymies in depth commentary and as soon as one person makes a flippant comment the whole thread deteriorates and I suspect this turns a lot of good commentators off.

I seriously think all these issues need to be addressed.

end of rant.. thank you.

I've found that moderation is key to creating civil online discourse, as is asking people to use their real names, or asking them to create profiles on the site in question.

The kinds of remarks anonymous or eponymous people make online, especially the racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic ones, are something most of them would never say face to face. I call online behavior "id-driven," because it seems to give the less pro-social, less frontal-lobe-moderated instincts free rein.

We've all joined in on a snarky thread and tried to top one another at someone else's expense. But if you sit with your behavior and use your frontal lobe, you are soon overtaken with appropriate shame and remorse.

Or, you do if all your parts are working properly.

It's kind of like watching quippy, rat-a-tat humor on TV. We laugh precisely because no on can get away with humor like that in real ife.

Hi Janet,

You might be interested in a paper I saw by Simone Chambers (U Toronto) on civility and public reason. She gave it in July in Sydney, Australia, and while I can't find a paper version, the podcast is at http://www.usyd.edu.au/podcasts/2009/free_speech_symposium_part_2.mp3

In contrast to conventions on civility and politeness as being more or less synonymous, Simone identified civility as something that goes a bit deeper. Her most memorable quote (I'm attributing here, it was a long day :) ) was "there has to be a way to tell someone to go to hell without ruining your own position in the process." She wasn't talking about online activity, but I'm sure her points would ring true in this medium. At a guess (this isn't really my bag, so I don't feel that qualified) I'd say her work would be pertinent to questions relating to whether or not civility is to do with people's hurt feelings, or something else.

Question: Will your panel be online, offline, or both? I'd love to participate, but I'm kind of on the wrong side of the world (ANU, Canberra, Australia) and lacking funds to jaunt across the pond.



You do not counter bad speech with censorship. You counter bad speech with good speech.

By Katharine (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

Is there some special problem of online civility (vs. offline civility)?

Yes. In "offline" interactions, people are more likely to feel required to put up a false front of dishonest civility, and in so doing, normalize submission to people who misuse their authority to dominate discourse.

Is being civil online essentially the same as being civil in offline engagements?

No. In the online world there is far less incentive to be civil to people who do not deserve it.

@Katharine #16

Nowhere in my comment did I mention "bad speech" or "censorship" nor did I wish to imply it. I do, however agree with your sentiments.

4chan broke civility on teh internets long ago, it is a lost cause.
But it'll still be an awesome panel!

Some thoughts:
-Online civility is not unique in any particular aspect, but a given online forum has a specific constellation of characteristics which make it unique. Email isn't scienceblogs isn't facebook isn't phd phorums isn't twitter isn't 4chan isn't PLoS.
-Each of those forums have a different group of stakeholders and would result in a different conversation on civility.
-I don't think any of us are on the same team. But some of us are playing the same sport, by the same rules. And then you get the person who thinks they are playing baseball but comes with a wiffleball. Or a bowling pin!
-That said, online communities- intentional and otherwise- do exist, and the good ones involve some collective and constructively intended 'policing' of norms of behavior; at a minimum, people describe the rules of the game they want to play (in my opinion, it's ideal to keep it to this kind of minimum when it comes to people you can't make many assumptions about; as you get to know people it's more ok to affectionately point out when you think they're doin it rong)
-"Successful coalition building" is a far more structured concept than is inherent in most interpersonal interaction networks. Although I think there are some which arise with very little intentional or explicit organization (e.g. support communities of grad students comforting each other about the perils of the phd; there's no coalition except inasmuch as you have individuals being sympathetic and supportive toward each other). But if you mean something Organized and Structured, that entails Getting Political Stuff Done in Meatspace, well that's not even on most people's *agendas*.
-The purpose of calls to civility is very context-dependent. It's not always about emotions, but I think things would generally go smoother if each of us could be more honest with *ourselves* when our desires for civility stem from concern over feelings. If casting it that way is dismissive or marginalizing, that would be a reflection of a pathological misunderstanding of the nature of humans as emotional beings.
-Look, it can be difficult to discuss the weather civilly if you're combative enough minded. Not that I know anyone like that. *whistles*.
I've also seen a number of startlingly mutually constructive and thoughtful debates about abortion/religion/politics/evolution/*insert contentious topic here*. I think individual *people* may not be able to engage civilly about specific topics, but it's the topic per se. And in a shocking number of cases, people who are inclined to be agreeable toward each other can have civil conversations about things in which they are actively morally outraged by each other's position, and people who are inclined to be disagreeable toward each other can have nasty conversations about anything.

yolande- Do you mean the *number* of offensive comments from the US are high, or that they are particularly egregious, or both? I've observed that some of the more international forums I've taken part in online tend toward more civility; I'd speculate that people tend to be more restrained when they *know* other people won't all think like them, and they *need* to be more focused on civility when there is more potential for intercultural misunderstandings. Or maybe it's just non-USians being a civilizing influence.
On the issue of people getting tedious- I've certainly seen the problem you're talking about. To the degree someone refuses to read *any* other comments, and just spews out their own take, I think it can be an obnoxious violation of blog etiquette.
However, in very busy threads I sometimes find it nice to observe repetition. I worry that many of the people most inhibited by not wanting to say something that has already been said are also voices we tend to hear less of in general. So I have mixed feelings about that issue.

I think civility is nice to see in a discussion, however I value substance more. A vigorous discussion on an emotive issue may become uncivil if opinionated people are involved, but what they are saying, despite the incivility, is what is more important. Of course, if the discussion degrades to a mere exchange of insults, it is no longer a discussion and has no further value, except maybe as stress-release.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

I wasn't aware that the internet came with instructions. You can't throw me off the internet. Therefore I have a latitude that doesn't occur in real life (although those boundaries are surprisingly flexible also). If we adopt the same norms online as we do offline, what's the bloody point in being online in the first place - it's not supposed to be a replication of our offline activities, it's something new altogether - bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter - but not simply a "version" of our existing communication modes.

Here's a thing: what is it about certain information channels that forms our expectations of what comes out of them and therefore what we should put into them? True, there's no instructions taped to the orifice, but there seems to be a striving for arriving at a norm, and this is self-policed by the players of whichever information tube we're referring to. Is it the people participating, or is it the actual information, or just the channel that it comes down to us from? What's forming those norms?

Real names? I agree with Isis; that doesn't matter. I've completed a couple of art contracts for people with pseudonyms, and it's their behaviour online that caused me to trust them, not their Peter Parker identities.

Uncivilly attacking an position's merits isn't a problem, but I assume what line in the sand you are drawing is when it goes to ad hominem, sexist, racist or phobic comments? Yeah, that's not cool. Tear their argument to pieces if you want, but don't insult their parentage.

Um, at the risk of looking like a total noob, what exactly is the definition of "muppethugging"? I couldn't find it in the urban dictionary, and after seeing it used on various blogs, I'm a little fozzie on what it means. Heh.


The impression I got was that you were lumping racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. speech under speech that should be censored.

As much as I am quite vigorously AGAINST the idiots who hold those opinions, it is actually dangerous, in a way, to silence them; allowing everyone to speak keeps you aware of the crap that would otherwise bubble beneath the surface of society.

By Katharine (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

Don't forget to define "civility"! All too often it is used to refer to only uncivil language while letting uncivil behavior slide by -- there are far too many people who think that avoiding four-letter words while sticking the knife in is excusable, while a little profanity in defense of principle is reason to shriek in horror.

From your description here, this talk is going to be all about tone and rudeness, while ignoring substance.

There is something about online communication which leads to a greater degree of disinhibition than with face to face or telephone communications. Thus it is not a matter of civility per se, it's more a matter of being less in control of your impulses - be they civil or uncivil. I'd guess that the kind of person who is rude and aggressive when they've had a glass or three of alcohol is pretty much the same as the one who is rude and aggressive online. Some people are prone to 'free-floating anger' (like free-floating anxiety) - and they are particualrly likely to be uncivil online (and when they've had a drink). Obviously the disinhibition I'm talking about is the same as the 'inhibition' alcohol tends to induce (where it is the controls that are being inhibited, rather than the overt behaviour).

@23, I suspect that (Muppethugging) is are plug-in euphemism for m****rf***ing. Granted, it's an assumption from context, but at least it's consistent.

These are great suggestion, folks. Keep them coming!

Substance, not just form, is definitely part of the planned discussion (although I guess I/we haven't made it clear enough in what we've said so far). The incivility of refusing to get the facts and/or clinging to faulty "facts" is an important piece of that, so I'll do my best to see that this gets addressed.

Yes, "muppethugging" was coined so I could quote part of a PhysioProf post on my blog and capture the spirit of his comment in a way that fit the tone (and audience) of my posts a little better. Occasionally it gets used as an exclamation at Casa Free-Ride; my kids think I'm weird.

Our session at ScienceOnline2010 *won't* be streamed, but I'm inclined to say that between the bloggy conversations about the topic before and afterward, it should be possible for lots of people who aren't going to be there in person to participate.

Part of what I like about online discussions, though - nobody can interrupt you.

By Katharine (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

David - no, you're wrong. er, I mean, I think it's actually subtly different from that. I don't think we're observing here a 'baseline level' of civility that consists of an ideal target level of agressive uninhibition, which is suppressed by convention, "netiquette" or other norms and behavioural constructions imported from real life and superimposed upon similar forms of intercourse online. If that were the case, all you'd have to do is take away the suppressing force (the netiquette annoyances and their annoying transmitters) and everybody'd just rocket up to maximum rudeness untamed.

This, in my opinion, isn't what would happen. Because we already have a situation where the suppressing forces are not present. Really. They're not there. You might think they're there, but they're not. It's just you (and a few others) behaving yourselves, and a few insufferable prudes looking the other way whenever someone says fuck, but every player knows that they are powerless to stop it, so the illusion continues - the illusion that there's a veneer of manners and civility, and every now and then, this bursts and "unrestricted" behaviour spurts out.

In my opinion, what is actually happening is a structure more like a "pull" than a "push". We respond to the channels that the information comes down to us, and we perceive a flavour, a shape, a characteristic tone from either the channel's influence, or the information that is present within that channel. But the information present within that channel is put there by other people already detecting the timbre, and future people will also detect this, from the existing content. The characteristics of the channel influence the players, but the design and/or presentation of the channel may dictate the timbral or resonant feedback effects of the expectations of what we need to put into it, and hence, what we see coming out of it.

This, incidentally, is in large part, the core of a book I'm currently wonderfully succeeding in finding the time to write because I'm so unbelievably organised that it hasn't taken the past few years at all to get this embarrassingly not very far at all yet after finishing my MSc. I must get on and get back to writing.

Something that was supposed to be in my last comment (but wasn't because, apparently, I was distracted by something shiny):

We haven't organized the planned session around a particular definition of civility (necessary and sufficient conditions for X to be civil, or even something looser). It's not that we're taking a Potter Stewart approach ("I know pornography civility when I see it."). Rather, at the heart of a lot of discussions of civility or incivility, whether online or elsewhere, are instances where people discover that they don't agree about what's civil/uncivil, even though they started out thinking they were on the same page. To me, there's an interesting question about whether folks are actually operating with different definitions, or whether they share a definition but disagree about how particular situations fall under that definition, or whether the costs involved in being civil in certain situations just strike them as too high (and whether that's a good call or a bad call).

In other words, to get to the heart of phenomena that actually play out in online discourse, we might have to deal with multiple working definitions of civility instead of restricting it to some single "official" definition.

From your description here, this talk is going to be all about tone and rudeness, while ignoring substance.

Not at all, Dr. Myers. It is my intent to uniquely address the substance of civility. I dont give two fucks about who says the word asshat on the interwebz.

You can (in general) ignore online comments - so really the only uncivil things you can do are waste people's time or lie to them. And the first one is hard to do without doing the second...

Other than that, who gives a fat flying crocoduck?

eNeMeE @33, I reckon some commenters who are working hard to make their points (maybe even to communicate them clearly and calmly) would feel like it was uncivil for other participants in the conversation to ignore their comments.

This is a different thing, I think, from scrolling past the commenter you know is going to type some variant of ROOSTER-MUSTELID-UselessToolOfThePatriarchy-PRIMATE!!1!1!

To my eye, the difference has to do with refusing to engage with someone who is making a good faith effort to be a part of the conversation versus refusing to engage with someone who seems more genuinely committed to derailing it.

Of course, then the question arises of whether derailing is always a bad-faith move, or whether sometimes it's a legitimate request to recenter the conversation.

FWIW, one commenter complained that the comments threads at sciblogs.co.nz (the New Zealand counterpart to this place) were too civil...

It seems as if he wants verbal fistfights! I do sometimes think that some seem to enjoy the blood rush without any physical risk or whatever. Perhaps we might speculate that the perception of a lack of risk is the common link between those pick scraps in the real world and those that do likewise on-line?

That said, I think that the tone of, and use of language in, the lead articles can set the tone of the comments that follow. As a "light" example, you'll see a lot more "text" language and loose language at ERV than here or at sciblogs.co.nz. (Saying nothing against herâI like her blog tooâjust saying that's the tone she sets.)

As an example of a characteristic distortion imparted by a typical online channel of information upon the information it contains, most gathering places for communication are overwhelmingly dominated by the "present" - ie, now. We know, and accept, and treat as normal (in the same way people accept, and treat as normal the amount of road traffic accident deaths each day as the baseline with which to compare other dangers (except terrorism - that's always vastly more dangerous, apparently)) the notion that whatever we type will be hot news right now, but come next week it'll have disappeared beneath the sedimentary sludge that will form conversational fossils in years to come.

Coupled with that, and related, is the notion that all the participants are if not exactly anonymous, very likely to be transient. I might not come back here. If I didn't bookmark it, I might never find my way back here. You might never cross over another conversation with me. Meanwhile, I'll be having conversations, but with other people, people that aren't connected with you no matter how many Kevin Bacons are placed end to end in between. It's like the way people treat each other in a big city, but magnified even louder. Because you can. Because you know you're unlikely to see them again. Probably. Or if it turns out not the case, then it's an exception.

Then there's also the "my own world" posture that if you don't like what I say, or how I say it, then it's up to all of you to manoeuvre your community around the way I habitually do things, because the consistency is with me, not all of you - how can it be with you, I've only just overlapped into your venn diagram briefly and soon I might be gone, yet yesterday I was me, and I woke up this morning and I'm still me, so I'm the fixed point.

The "currency" effect of a temporal "now" is actually quite a flaw with most online communications, and it is, I believe, this aspect that gives rise to the notion that you can readily abuse the limits of old-media civility by inventing new-media shock conversation posturing. Or something.

It is interesting how different people define civility and politeness differently. Greg Laden and I both posted our definitions today and they are very different....

Is there actual academic literature out there that defines these terms, at least operationally?

It's kind of hard to talk about civility on the internet given the predilection of Highlander Disease, aka "There can be only one", "Two men enter, one man leaves", etc. At this point, basic disagreement of point is considered an attack of some kind. This issue is kind of ironic given one of the panelists, Sheril Kirshenbaum, has a bad habit of practicing this, even while she co-writes books that contain entire chapters that are little more than personal attacks on those she disagrees with.

Look at the non-troversy she and her co-author started when people actually read their book and thought that it wasn't very good in the end. The two of them reacted as though anyone giving the book a bad review was personally attacking them and their families unto the tenth generation.

It's just a little impossible to have any civility if any and all forms of disagreement are taken to be a personal attack.

Does signal-to-noise ratio enter into this at all?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

In my opinion, the written text language we use online is completely different to speech language we use is RL discourse. Writing (typing text ) is using symbols to form words which we use our eyes to understand and speech is using sounds that most of us must listen to in order to understand. Consequently, a definition of "online civility" could perhaps pertain to the written and not the spoken language.

When people try to write text the way they speak ( eg using bad or offensive language) it transcribes as emotive (in my opinion) and using emotive language causes several things to happen in text.

Firstly, that writer loses credibility, so that, even though the substance of their writing may be worth reading, a certain number of people will be instantly turned off reading anything they write, because the language is appealing (perhaps benignly) to the readers emotions and not their intellect. For instance, I am instantly turned off reading any science blogs that contain what I deem to be offensive language eg "douchebag".

Unfortunately for those who insist it is their right to offend in writing, what they don't realize is that their work won't be read by the very people who they are hoping will read it. In other words, if you use bad or offensive language in your writing you run the risk of being disregarded and *shock /horror* ignored at worst and drowned in written noise at best.

Secondly, using emotive language in writing elicits and triggers emotional responses (comments) from others and the discourse is eroded. In Science writing/blogging/journalism surely this is to be avoided at all costs. And yes D.C Sessions, the signal - to - noise ratio does matter.

To sum up, "civility" in text is whether or not you want to be regarded or disregarded. The choice is yours.

Ian Tindale's second posting above is very good:

"... most gathering places for communication are overwhelmingly dominated by the "present" ... the notion that whatever we type will be hot news right now, but come next week it'll have disappeared ...."

Compare that with the point discussed here:

"... people would be better at predicting how others would judge them in the far future than in the immediate one, because we think about things in the distant future using a broad, high-level perspective - the same lens that others view us through.

Sure enough, the posers were significantly better at predicting the judges' marks if they thought they were being rated in a month than in a day. The descriptions also supported his explanation. ....
"A second similar study found the same trends when students ... were told that a listener would use the recording to form an overall impression of them, either later that day or several months from now. And again, they were better at predicting the judges' actual scores if they were casting their mind into the future."

And lo, in practice, people who reply to flamers with flames or leap all over people rebunking stuff long since debunked tend to get nasty.

How to get better replies? Look at the people who reply to the very same netwittery with the calming perspective that they're not replying to the person, they're writing for a later audience --- days or weeks or months later, some youngster trying to write a research paper is going to come across the thread and need good information clearly presented with pointers to how to find more good information.

I learned that reading Usenet science newsgroups with "nn" (a lovely, threaded newsreader with an excellent killfile).

(And it's still all there, still searchable, still useful, thanks to Henry Spencer at UTZoo who kept copies.)

So I try to avoid the "immediate and ephemeral" notion in responding -- this isn't ephemeral, (except to people who don't know how to search).

This is only a half-formed thought, so take it for the little it is probably worth...

I'm not sure about the assertion that the things we say online are things we would never say face-to-face. Particularly with regard to the sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, anti-fat, and other privileged -ist garbage that comes out on the intarwebs, I think the story is a little more complicated than that.

I suspect that the people who say these things online also say them offline, in certain contexts -- contexts that exclude or marginalize the targets of the scorn and hatred. When these people come online, they either don't realize or don't care that their potential audience is now larger, and may well include their targets.

Discussions of privilege are always touchy, but this may be one manifestation of privilege...

Not anything particularly useful in terms of civility...

But if you want an alternative perspective on the term "muppethugging," it's useful to note that "muppet" is slang for "idiot" or "silly person" in the UK. So one who is muppethugging could be someone who is purposely embracing the idea of being an idiot, even if that wasn't the original intended origin of the word.

I agree with Dorothea Salo. I think that people go by their personal experience in this--those of you who haven't heard thuggishly bigoted and stupid remarks made by your family and social group in real life think that people are less civil online, whereas people who have might be introduced to more civil behavior online and will downplay the tendency of people to become more abusive online.

My father went on a rant to several people while I was in the room about the liberal gay communist conspiracy/agenda to destroy America and let the barbarian drug addict violent/ignorant lower classes ruin society within hours of me coming out to him as bisexual, which he replied to with negative stereotypes but also with unconditional love. What you may find to be unacceptable behavior might be unremarkable to another person, is what I'm saying.

Additionally, I was raised with a very different ethos than Yolande advocates. Heated argument was the most common mode of discourse within my family, perhaps second to elaborate, whimsical, coarse, often ridiculing humor. To us, dismissing or calling out someone for uncivil language was a gross violation of the substance of civility. It is dismissing someone's most passionate beliefs and saying that a common human thing, emotionality, is evidence that that a person lacks the ability to reason--even though in many cases my family did reason well and intelligently (not in the above-cited case though, of course).

It was also seen as a sort of ethnic bigotry. City-people, Northerners, upper-class well-educated sorts were raised with this false notion of politeness and scorned people of our region and class as ignorant and basically subhuman, incapable of reason. From this mythos, someone insisting on reigning discourse into certain parameters would be dismissed just as quickly as Yolande's people would dismiss someone arguing emotively.

Of course, many of these beliefs weren't true and the positions my father (it was mostly him) presented to me were riddled with contradictions. But I'm still a lot less likely to pay attention to civility, because I'm not used to it. I was raised with values of bluntness, not niceness.

However, I do believe that reason and emotion should not be uncoupled--without emotion, we'd have no reason to be reasoning about things, and we certainly couldn't move from facts to motivation, and we can't get facts without the motivation to do so, so I can't imagine insisting that emotion be left out of discourse. And since I am emotional, I care about whether or not I wrong someone by my speech. And that, to me, now, is the essence of civility: Are you wronging someone by unfairness or verbal assault? (It is, by the way, unfair to cite something wrongly, to avoid evidence, and so on.)

This is much more than an issue of "hurting someone's feelings," although a concern that itself should never be considered dismissive or marginalizing. It's also about whether or not you're indoctrinating someone. Whether or not your rhetorical strategies and viewpoints are not merely temporarily hurting someone but contributing to continual emotional abuse and hindering their ability to use their mind to its rational and emotional potential.

Apologies for the long comment and preachy tone.


Seconded for awesomeness.

By Katharine (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

Civility is more or less governed by the same boundary conditions everywhere, it's just that on the Internet, one of those boundary conditions is moved 'way over that-a-way.

If someone is an asshole in "real life", their interactions with other people are going to largely be confrontational. Since most people (at least, in our particular society), have a tendency towards conflict-avoidance, the asshole bulls his (or her) way through society without much resistance. When the asshole butts up against another asshole, sparks fly.

Online, the two natural brakes that encourage conflict-avoidance (namely, fear of personal harm and social fallout) are largely gonzo. If some jagoff shows up on your web site and starts spouting, the likelihood that they're going to do anything, you know, actually real to you is within a reasonable delta of zero. So rather than shirk away from the red-faced maniac shouting offensive stuff in your face, you shout back.

... and of course the psychological bully who isn't used to having people challenge them doesn't have the fear response when challenged online that they might have in real life, either, so they go off the deep end into crazy town (usually with the entire comment thread strapped on their back).

The Internet doesn't encourage people to be assholes half as much as it encourages everyone who puts up with assholes in real life to really give 'em hell when they run into them online. Couple this with the tendency for people to comment much more frequently on topics that they find particularly contentious, and bingo, you get lots of uncivil behavior.