January 10, 2010

Online and offline discussions: Civility and honesty (and trolling)

There's a good discussion about "online civility" going on (mainly on Janet's blog, but here and there also) in preparation for one of the sessions at ScienceOnline 2010. This post and this one particularly peaked my interest, regarding the advantages of discussing issues online. I'm almost completely the opposite; I dislike online communication in general because it lacks the immediacy and the non-verbal elements of an actual conversation, which add important layers of context to the discussion, such as level and purpose of interest, sincerity, humor, sarcasm, and perhaps most importantly, a true grasp of the concepts being discussed (severence from Google in other words)*. This is my particular preference of course; I'm not making value judgements here.
I think those communication elements are essential in discussing politics, metaphysics and ethics, and I try to hold out judgement about a difference of opinion until it's verbally communicated to me. I rarely get involved in arguments online, trying my best to remain tonally flat and noncommital. I try. I'm not always successful.

The non-verbal cues I mentioned give us important information about who the person is we're interacting with. It's like knowing their name or the place they grew up; these bits inform us and gives us a better starting point for trying to understand (not judge) the person first and the content of their argument second. The former is the most important for me when it comes to debating those sticky personal/moral issues. Stripped of the immediacy of face to face discussion, it becomes much harder work to truly understand where someone is actually coming from with their position on a subject. If their anger is apparent, it becomes important to understand why they are angry and if their anger (or any strong emotion, really) is coloring their perceptions to the extent that it distorts reality.

Online communication strips away the first portion of the way we relate, leaving us with only content and writing style, which can be very different from the way a person actually speaks. Spoken words give us far more insight into who people actually are, because they are being put on the spot so to speak. Since responding to someone online does not have this immediacy, we can take the opportunity to Google certain items that we don't understand in a comment or try to confirm something that we are unsure of. It's a nice option, surely, but does it really reflect our preparedness to defend our position? Furthermore, bringing up an obscure aspect of a position can create inroads of communication and respect for the parties involved. For example, I'm debating art with my fiance, vehemently criticizing the validity of a certain movement and endangering the peace of the weenend. She mentions an obscure article written by an obscure art philosopher that she purports to refute my claim, an article that I'm surely unfamiliar with. I have two choices: Nod my head and pretend to know the article, thus risking to be found out by further probing or insufficient posutring or I can admit I know nothing of the article and ask her to explain it to me. This changes the dynamic of the argument for a brief time. It's like an olive branch to slow things down and to admit that one always has room to learn from others, even those who have a difference of opinion. Discussions and arguments give the participants the option to avoid these choices.

It's very important to know the people you're speaking with, even if they are diametrically opposed to you in their views, and this is where the level and purpose of their interest in the topic comes in, an element of the conversation we're not privy to online: Are they really denying the evidence for evolution or are you being trolled?

Bill gets trolled irl.

I have mixed feelings about trolling. At its best, it's an art form and highly entertaining, a clever social experiment exhibiting the more base inclinations of the populace of an online forum. At its worst it's a shallow and mean-spirited fulfillment of our desire to have power over one another and lord it, to put people down or make people angry through an obvious ploy (obvious troll is obvious).

It's up to the moderator who she or he considers a troll. I've had other bloggers comment on threads that I would consider trolling and some trolls on threads that have started interesting discussions and were thwarted by the other commenters who found some content to riff on in the troll's post. I've never attracted many on my blogs because I'm not prone to anger online. So there's no payoff, no lulz (careful with that linky weezy; it ain't for the kids).

The best threads and blogs to troll are the ones prone to anger. If they're good, with one comment, trolls can turn a Christian or atheist thread** into a flamewar of epic proportions, spawning hundreds of angry responses, relishing the attention and the distraction they posed to the people that took the time to take the bait. It's an IWIN button because the troll itself doesn't necessarily believe what they're saying, and is committing to nothing beyond banking those lulz.

I don't think there can be a solid determination of what online civility is or should be. The internet is empty until we bring our proclivities to it, and in defining these virtual spaces we are limited by them, establishing online societies and cultures that have different standards for what's acceptable and what's not. Beyond that, there's another difficulty added in the form of trolling (irl trolls exist, but they usually take the form of PR for activist NGOs).

Regarding Carroll's piece, I hope that people are trying to be honest and I don't believe that the internet promotes lies and misinformation to any greater extent than before its existence. The misinformation has increased in proliferation, surely, but so has the good information. It is and has always been up to the individual to determine what is well attributed and not, but let's not pretend that our worldviews don't define our attitudes or our support for info/misinfo.

*This probably deserves a future post explaining the difference between writing and spoken word and whether or not blogging is inherently a "discussion" in the same way as a face to face conversation.

**Interestingly enough, the best example of these volatile threads outside of metaphysical/ethical/political discussions is the Damage Dealing forums for World of Warcraft, usually in the form of a whiny post deceptively listing the problems with a certain class when in fact said class is in good shape. Those who take the bait agree and disagree and the thread descends into a one hundred pages of finger pointing and spam. The most successful of these threads are very entertaining for anyone interested in the issue of online civility or virtual identities/societies.

1 comment:

  1. I think being respectful of the other person, even though they may not share your views and may not be respectful. It's important to treat others how you want to be perceived, both in person and online.