Past president's column

People post things online that most would never say to someone face to face.

By Pauline Wallin

Rudeness is nothing new. What is new is that in the context of online communications, we are exposed to more of it. Compared with five years ago, we are interacting with more people and observing more interactions among others. Think of the dozens (or hundreds) of conversations you see every day on Listservs®, Facebook, Twitter, and forums.

Most of these conversations are polite, but we’ve all seen rude, aggressive postings directed at specific individuals. People post things online that most would never say to someone face to face. Maybe even you have posted an inflammatory message in a heated moment.

Thus, just the number of communications that we participate in or observe makes it more likely that we’ll encounter rudeness and incivility.

But there are additional factors that come into play:

  • Truncated communications. Tweets and texts are 140 characters maximum, so the messages are truncated and abbreviated; and sometimes important words are left out.

  • Electronic communications also lack voice tone and pitch, as well as nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expression. In face-to-face conversation we rely on these cues to interpret the other person’s intent and attitude more accurately. But words on a screen lack this meta-communication, as it’s called. As a result, the meaning behind the words may be difficult to decipher. One partial solution is emoticons—like the smiley face, which is supposed to signify that the sender is writing with a friendly attitude. It helps, but it’s not a substitute for all the other meta-communication elements.

  • People don’t read with careful attention online. On more than one occasion I have quickly read an email and responded to it, and got a follow-up from the sender: “Thanks for your reply. But what about my second point?” Apparently I didn’t process the original message correctly. Can you relate?

All the above factors increase the likelihood for misinterpretation getting annoyed, and taking things personally that were not intended as such.

Add to the mix the ability to reply instantly. Before the Internet, if you wanted to send someone a message you had to go through several steps:

  • Write or type your message on paper

  • Put the paper in an envelope

  • Address it

  • Find a stamp.

  • Then you had to take it to a mailbox or post office.

Back then, if you wrote a letter in anger, by the time you got to the point of actually mailing it, you had time to settle down and reconsider.

Now, with online communication, there are no barriers, nothing external to slow you down. Just one click or tap, and your message is sent into cyberspace. VERY EASY to be impulsive in your communication, without filtering what you say, and a good chance that you might regret it.

Will this online rudeness ever stop?

There is hope. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing evolutionary psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell speak at James Randi’s Amazing Meeting. She explained that as rules of behavior are enforced in societies, there is more repugnance and ostracism of those who don’t conform.

For example, a couple of hundred years ago it was quite acceptable to do things in public that we would consider rude today—in terms of table manners, bodily functions, and certain kinds of speech. But as social norms gradually evolved into a greater refinement of etiquette, rudeness would get you socially rejected.

A more recent example of the evolution of societal norms is around smoking. In the 1950s and 1960s smoking was socially acceptable, even glamorous. Now, of course, smokers are marginalized, more by repugnance from others than by the anti-smoking laws themselves.

Citing the work of Steven Pinker, Dr. Cornwell noted that when people find themselves in a new frontier there’s no established social protocol. For example, in the Wild West cowboys were rude and crude, but they weren’t shamed or ostracized because of it.

In a way, Cornwell said, the Internet is a new frontier. We’re at the stage where social norms and etiquette are evolving. As online communities become less tolerant of rude behavior, those who violate the norms will become marginalized and lose social standing. Past President’s Column (continued from p. 2) Thus, from an evolutionary point of view, we should expect to see increasingly civil communication online as people become more mindful of what they say.

But there will always be outliers—those who are chronically angry or narcissistic; and the bullies who hijack conversations and create a demoralizing or threatening atmosphere. Social norms and pressure will not stop them.

Just as in the physical world, we’ll need external enforcement in the online world to help protect the targets of their attacks.

One strategy that Youtube recently adopted is that in order to post a comment about a video, you must use your real name, unless you can give them a valid reason why you can’t. That should improve the quality of the comments on Youtube, which has been dubbed one of the worst cesspools of comments on the Internet.

When people can’t hide behind a pseudonym or false identity, they are more vulnerable to being shamed. And shame is a powerful deterrent against incivility.

It’s a fine line, however. Any attempt to regulate online activity has met with much resistance. A bill introduced a few months ago in the New York State Senate proposes that anonymous posts online should be subject to takedown by a webmaster if the person refuses to attach their legal name to the post and verify their legal name, IP address, and home address.

The bill hasn’t been voted on yet. Opponents claim it goes too far in terms of how much personal information is required to post a comment online. And even if it did pass into law, it would be difficult to enforce.

So for now we have to rely on non-legal routes. We can each do our part to promote civil discussion online. Here are some suggestions:

Monitor your own postings. If you wrote something in anger, wait a couple of hours before posting it—just in case you want to change your mind. If you would not want your comment posted on a highway billboard, don’t post it online.

  • Think long-term. Remember, the Internet keeps a “permanent record” of everything you post.

  • If you have a blog, set it so that comments need to be approved. That way you’ll be able to prevent creeps from posting nasty comments.

  • Don’t engage in arguments online. Resist the urge to respond when provoked. People who are out to win are not going to listen to what you have to say anyway. The more we ignore hostile attacks, the less the attackers are reinforced. They won’t necessarily go away—more likely they’ll find someone else to attack—but it will at least slow them down.