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.

Google is Watching – Privacy concerns in the electronic age.

Chris Dziemborowicz, a lawyer and blogger, writes at about his concerns over Google’s recent indiscretions when it comes to the collecting and storing of WiFi data by its StreetView vehicles; a view that another blogger, zielwolf‘ argues is “collective luddite paranoia and melodrama”. I would like to suggest that zielwolf’s attitude to privacy is somewhat caviller. My response, posted on, is below.


I cannot help think that when zielwolf states “[w]hat Google is doing here is analogous to someone walking around collecting addresses” he is fundamentally mistaken about the seriousness of the issue.

As Dziemborowicz states in his piece, Google admitted to collecting not just WiFi identifiers but also, where networks were unsecured, data sent across these networks. To further zielwolf’s analogy, this is more akin to collecting not just street addresses but also some small pieces of the content of the mail contained within the letterbox at these address. As with the mail in one’s letterbox, this information has the potential be of a particularly sensitive nature.

Secondly, and this is a point that Dziemborowicz also misses, is that notwithstanding Google’s assurances of the limited nature of the information collected, the accidental nature in which it was collected, or its assurances of its intention to destroy this information, Google not only posses the immense computing power that would enable this information to be utilised in ways that we, as as owners of this information, may not be comfortable with; it is also an organisation that is based on, and derives its primary income from, using precisely these small pieces of data in order to provide marketing and advertising services. Google is a corporation and as such it exists to make money. It does this, not by providing you services, but providing them to people who want to know about, and market to you. This is a point that is often lost when discussing privacy in the electronic age.

And finally, zielwolf’s assertion that this is only an issue for those who have not bothered to secure properly their WiFi networks is also a straw man. This argument is not only based upon the assumption that we all possess the technical ability to know how to do this but also that we this to be an issue in the first place. It further assumes that all societies operate within the same technical and social internet paradigm that we do here in Australia. Google is an international corporation and as Dziemborowicz points out these same issues have been raised by privacy advocates in other jurisdictions. Notwithstanding other arguments about network security, internet access in other countries, by and large, does not operate within the same download and bandwidth limitations that we do. This removes the economic driver that zielwolf suggests drives us to secure WiFi networks so that others can use them. The result is that in other parts of the world there are many more open WiFi networks that we find here.

I would like to suggest that Dziemborowicz is rightly concerned about privacy issues within the electronic age, albeit not concerned enough.