Saturday, December 16, 2006

The decline of civility and etiquette on the web.

Having been the recipient of some rather amazing invective comments on this blog (which I didn't permit to be published), not to mention that the majority of comments on the blog are now spam which I have to prevent from being posted, I have to pass on this piece in David Pogues weekly emailing associated with the circuits section of the NY Times.

Whatever Happened to Online Etiquette?

"Dear David, first off i would like to tell you that you are full of **** and did not research the zune enough to know your facts.

(Here follows a list of 'mistakes' made by Pogue)

Pogue then writes:

The deeper we sail into the new online world of communications, the sadder I get about its future. I'm OK with criticism, I'm fine with disagreement, I'm perfectly capable of handling angry mail. That's not the issue here (although my teenage correspondent above was, in fact, wrong about every single one of his points). I've even accepted personal attacks as part of the job. I'm a columnist; the heat comes with the kitchen. But what's really stunning is how hostile *ordinary* people are to each other online these days. Slashdot and are extremely popular sites for tech fans. Each discussion begins with the presentation of an article or Web page--and then opens up the floor for discussion.

Lately, an increasing number of the discussions devolve into name-calling and bickering. Someone might submit, say, this item to Digg:

685 diggs. "AWESOME astronomy poem." (posted by MetsFan 3 days ago) Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.

Before long, the people's feedback begins, like this:

by baddude on 12/11/06
What's yr problem, moron. You already said it's a star, why would you then wonder what it is. Get a clue, or a life.
by neverland2 on 12/11/06
Dugg down as inaccurate. Stars do not twinkle. It's the shifting atmosphere that causes an apparent twinkle. Or were you stoned all through science class?
by mrobe on 12/11/06
yo neverland2--It's a poem, idiot. Nobody's claiming that stars twinkle. Ever heard of poetic license? Honestly, the intellectual level of you people is right up there with a gnat's.
...and so on.

What's worse is that the concentration of the nasty people increases as the civil ones get fed up and leave.

What's going on here?
My current theories:
* On the Internet, you're anonymous. Since you don't have to face the person you're dumping on, you don't see any reason to display courtesy.
* On the Internet, you're anonymous. You worry that your comments might get lost in the shuffle, so you lay it on thick to enhance your noticeability.
* The open toxicity is all part of the political climate. We've learned from the Red state-Blue state talking heads that open hostility can pass for meaningful conversation.
* Young people who spend lots of time online are, in essence, replacing in-person social interactions with these online exchanges. With so much less experience conversing in the real world, they haven't picked up on the value of treating people civilly. That is, they haven't yet hit the stage of life when getting things like friends, a spouse and a job depend on what kind of person you are.
* Many parents haven't been teaching social skills (or haven't been around to teach them) for years, but Web 2.0 is suddenly making it apparent for the first time. ("Web 2.0" describes sites like Digg and Slashdot, where the audience itself provides material for the Web site.)
I'd give just about anything to hear what 15-year-old Josh's parents would say if they knew how little respect he holds for adults (let alone the English language). Then again, maybe they wouldn't be surprised a bit.

The real shame, though, is that the kneejerk "everyone else is an idiot" tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we're finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.

Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn't just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site's credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there's something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.


  1. Anonymous3:47 PM

    A similar problem is displayed with roadrage.

    But - Even worse than otherwise normal, polite people becoming crazy on the net, is when people who actually are crazy get online. It is very easy to cause immense problems for any blogger or online business. For people who are absolutely consumed with rage (or insanity), on a regular basis, it becomes the perfect outlet to express that without much risk of consequences.

    I had some problems this year with an individual who, after a minor altercation on our forums proceeded to fabricate a story and post it on a few dozen websites, defaming various members and our company, causing us no end of problems.

    Later in the year this same individual was arrested on unrelated charges of attempted homicide and child molestation.

    I read an article a few years ago about an individual who purchased spamming software and sent out millions of emails meant to look like they were from a company he wanted to get revenge on.

    Like the author of the article, I have major concerns about the internet. In the early days the net was so obscure and hard to use it had a natural weeding out process. Now, with people who are literally growing up using it, we're going to see more and more of this activity.

  2. Adam, thanks for your comments. It is really unfortunate that negative and agressive energy seems to propagate so much more readily than that which is affirmative or community enhancing.

  3. Anonymous10:05 AM

    I know this is a late comment, but I'm doing an essay for my English course about this subject. I completely agree with you that people online lack the manners and respect for others that they would normally have if standing face-to-face. It's sad to see people afraid to speak up just because they know someone is going to 'bash' them verbally. The internet has become this lawless society where people vent their rage. And I'm tired of hearing the lame excuse that it is about freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not about belittling someone to make yourself feel better, it's about having the right to speak up about your opinions and views without persecution from the law.

    Thank you for the article, I enjoyed reading it. It's nice to hear that there are others out there who think its also a growing issue.