Comments on everything: The incivility of internet communication

I wanted to write something that was triggered by a brief Google+ conversation and an even more brief Twitter conversation that I’ve recently had. What follows is my unrefined thoughts on the topic of the incivility of internet communications.

Do tell me – civilly because I do, and will, moderate your comments – what you think below.

Nasty internet comments and conversation is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and I’d like to try to get some of my thoughts in writing. I guess here is as good a place as any to do that. I apologise in advance if this is a bit long or sounds a bit ranty.

In response to a post I made on Google+, Lars wrote in response:

I think you are on the point, the main problem is the sense of anonymity you have online, which makes it easier to ignore the social norms.
I fear this will probably never be solved as it’s almost impossible to, online, recreate the “being watched” feeling that usually keeps people in line with the social norms.
The only internal guides left are empathy and the fundamental respect for others which, sadly, a lot of people, especially the young, seem to be lacking.

I don’t think I’m as pessimistic about the future of online relationships as is Lars, though there is plenty of reason to be concerned.

Let’s look at the concern briefly. There is much evidence to show that online communication, by and large, has lost much of civility that we expect in face to face communication. All one need do is to read the comments on just about any online article, especially in these days of hyper partisanship, those to do with politics.

A recent example from my country was some of the terrible slander our (recently deposed) prime minister was subject to – being our first female PM, much of it was very very sexist and absolutely not anything anyone would dare say in public. Anne Summers has a good run down on it here:

In our own community, all we need do is look at some of the fanboyism that sparked this very conversation which all too easily turns from a difference of opinion to outright attack.

More worrying (to me at least), is that that many people seem happy to put their real names and images to these awful comments. A browse of some Facebook hate pages that spring up periodically is all one needs to see truly awful comments alongside people’s names and photos. To me, this says the problem runs deeper than perceived online anonymity.

I would, however, like to consider the issue from a different perspective.

I mentioned in my last post that online communication is still relatively new. And, despite the internet being round for some time now, I actually believe this to be the case when we hold it up against other forms of communication.

Take me for instance, I’ve been chatting online since the early(ish) days of the internet in the mid 1990s, and had been chatting on local BBS systems for a number of years before that. Compared to some of these young whippersnappers (get off my lawn) I could almost be considered an old hand.

Except I don’t represent a generation, or perhaps even half a generation.

When we talk about kids these days having no respect for social norms, what we’re taking about is a generation that is, by and large, finding their way in a communication medium that their parents haven’t even experienced.

Stay with me now, I know this is long but there is a payoff at the end. I promise.

My point is, despite its ubiquitous nature, the internet remains a new frontier for communication.

In this world, many of the social pressures we use to enforce norms of polite communication don’t exist, or don’t seem to exist, and people feel free to flout them.

What I do not think, is that this is a cause for too much alarm. After all, theories of social decline have been with us for generations, and we are yet to completely implode as a species.

What I want to propose it that before online communication becomes both normalised, and beholden to strict social norms, it will take at least a generation and a half, probably two.

In my view, what it will take for new social norms around internet communication to take hold is for the current generation (those who feel free to make nasty comments of any age) to begin to feel the ramification of such actions.

For people to lose their jobs and their livelihoods because they thought they were anonymous; for teenagers to find that they cannot simply delete their comments and be done with it, and for people who feel free to make hurtful comments to feel what it is like to be on the receiving end.

This generation will then be equipped to ensure those mistakes are not repeated, creating in the process a new social pressure to ensure peaceful communication.

And here’s the payoff.

There is hope, we are all humans and deep down, we all want the same thing. Getting there just may take a little more time than we’d like.


5 thoughts on “Comments on everything: The incivility of internet communication

  1. I couldn’t agree more. In addition, I think the Internet simply makes available to the many the conversations of the few. For example: travel to any small social gathering anywhere, and you will hear/observe conversations which may make offend, and the witnesses are small in number. Should that same conversation occur online, the number of witnesses increase dramatically.
    Thanks for the post!

    • That’s a good point Paul, and one I hadn’t considered. The internet is full of small group conversations that, by nature, are now open to a larger audience – even if it doesn’t necessarily mean a larger audience is participating. It also means that whatever your taste, the small group now exists and is accessible.

      Things to ponder, thanks for your comment.

      Edit: Further discussion with Paul has revealed he too has written on this topic. You can find his blog post here:

  2. Anonymity is allowing us to say what we want with very little recrimination. Is this showing what we truly are like as a species? On the whole, people are good. Its only the poisonous minority which get a reaction, and all of the attention. All this focus on those who have said bad stuff, but I am sure if you looked at ALL of the internet traffic, say, regarding Gillard, most of it would be positive. But that’s not what makes news.
    1 person says- what a bitch! 20 people jump to her defence, and so we fed the troll.
    The world is full of dickheads, but as the saying goes- dont feed the trolls

    • Whilst I agree with your assertion that the majority of comments are positive and we focus too much on the negitive and feeding the trolls, there is, I think, a little more to it.

      In many respects the internet empowers the poisonous minority and if unchallened by new social norms that provide an inherent reason not to act in a certian mannner these people will be emboldened. But as I say, I don’t think this is a long-term problem without a solution.

      I am, however, a little concerned about just how vitrolic some people can be, and why they feel they can be so nasty. On this subjetc, I’m not sure I have anything more than an observation that it exists. Something to think more about at a later date.

  3. Pingback: Comments (If and When) | Miles To Go

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