Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mind your manners

Mind your manners online
The Internet is being degraded by rude and self-centered people who smother civil discussions.

The proposition sounds ludicrous. The fate of the mighty Internet, the medium that changed the world, the most important advance in communications since the telephone, depends on whether billions of people can learn to curl their little fingers up as they sip their online tea? Preposterous. It's like arguing that we must bring back the monocle to perfect the linear accelerator. One societal force is coming on, the other has already left the scene. Manners are relics of another age. If you were to ask 1,000 people what the 50 most important issues facing the world are, etiquette would probably not make a single list.

And yet in a singularly odd collision of technology and human behavior, musty, fusty, dusty old manners are the key to the future of online communication. If we don't learn where to place our conversational fish knives, the Hobbesian e-jungle will swallow us all.

I can already hear a distant chorus of "You're a fucking idiot and so is your idiotic thesis!" swelling sweetly through the distant reaches of cyberspace. But before the free-speech Cossacks break down my door, let me explain what I mean and what I don't.

First, this is not a rant against the supposed general decline of societal civility. Reports of that decline are greatly exaggerated. People aren't any ruder now than they were 30 years ago. Second, this is not a call for any kind of official regulation of online speech (as if that were even possible). And third, it is not intended to be a universal prescription. Let flame wars rage across cyberspace. Just keep the matches away from civilization.

Manners are an artificial construct, rooted in class structures that no longer exist. In our egalitarian, largely classless and ritualless society, we only need to learn the most general rules of social conduct. Peasants do not have to tug their forelocks when the lord rides past, because we don't have peasants and lords anymore. We rebel against artificial codes that govern our comportment because we perceive them as unnecessary. And most of the time, they are unnecessary. If you're reasonably well brought up, you can pretty much rely on instinct to guide your behavior as you make your way through the world.

But this isn't true when you go online. The fact is that online communication is artificial, and so requires artificial behavior. For various reasons, people tend to behave worse there than they do elsewhere. They must learn to behave better if the Internet is to attain its potential as a communicative medium.

The key word is "potential." Of course Web sites can function even if they are plagued by rude posters, aggressive blowhards and people who don't play well with others. The exchange of ideas, the lively give and take that is the goal of online discussions, cannot be destroyed by bad manners. But they can be, and are, degraded, and the consequences of that degradation are more far-reaching than may initially appear.

Online communication is artificial because of its peculiar combination of attributes: It is written, it is addressed to people you don't know, and it takes place within an undefined communicative context.

It is a truism that a negative written comment has a harsher impact than a spoken one. That's why most of us have learned to take a deep breath and count to 10 before firing off angry e-mails. Writing is at least putatively more considered, less instinctive and immediate, than speaking. Moreover, it is a communication that takes place in an interpersonal void. You can't soften the blow by smiling, putting your hand on someone's shoulder, looking concerned, or engaging in any other ameliorating behaviors. It's also potentially immortal. A mean e-mail or posting or letter can live on forever. A verbal assault can sometimes be erased; a written one is very hard to undo. When asked to revoke the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Ayatollah Khomeini or one of his acolytes said, if memory serves, "Once the great black arrow has been released it cannot be recalled." Once you hit "send," you've fired your own great black arrow into the world, and you'd better be damn sure you meant what you wrote and are ready to stand behind your words.

But because online postings are addressed to people you don't know, or not even addressed to anyone at all, you don't actually have to stand behind your words. Like a bomber pilot who never sees the people he bombs, the online poster simply blasts away, never having to confront his or her adversary. There may not even be an adversary. Many postings are, in the words of the late Norman Mailer, "advertisements for myself."

By Gary Kamiya

"advertisements for myself." That is WHY one should think before...
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