Mind your manners online

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

Topics: Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly,

The future of the Internet hinges on manners.

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.”

Online speech is inherently ambiguous. It can be either a conversation or a pronouncement, or something in between. If you think you’re standing on a soapbox in Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, why would you feel impelled to act like you’re at a dinner party? That’s why the single change that would most improve online communication would be if posters made an effort to frame their remarks as part of a conversation, not as a diatribe. Once you see the anonymous participants in a discussion as real people, it’s much harder to scream at them. When I was an editor at Salon, in the days when we hand-selected and edited letters, I learned that if I responded by e-mail to abusive letters, and signed my name, the letter-writer would almost invariably moderate his or her tone, and frequently apologize.

The result of people not regarding their postings as two-way communications is a trail of rhetorical wreckage that litters the Web like burned-out vehicles after a strafing raid. Grunts, shouts and gestures replace arguments. Online conversations bog down or trail off down inconsequential byways. The chess game is no longer played at a high level. Worse, the coarser rhetorical and emotional tone that is set becomes self-perpetuating. The salon slowly turns into a gladiatorial arena. It isn’t a Darwinian processs, either, because in this arena, the strongest and smartest aren’t the ones who usually survive. The loudest, rudest and most obnoxious are the winners. The quiet, the shy, the reflective are driven away. Even those who have thick skins, and are not themselves involved in a discussion, will often simply give up trying to mine a thread for interesting ideas. It isn’t worth the psychological agita.

A good example of a publication whose discussions are so ferocious that you have to enter them with a suit of armor is the Web site of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Haaretz is a superb newspaper, and there are always intelligent and thoughtful postings somewhere in the discussion threads after its stories. But the threads tend to be so nasty that I’ve mostly given up reading them. Even if you’re just a bystander, you feel battered and spattered.

Of course, politeness isn’t everything. Knowledge and intelligence affect the quality of an online discussion. There are plenty of high-quality discussions that are dominated by brassy, extroverted, competitive people, who may sometimes verge on rudeness, but who are also seriously smart. And there are other threads that are as decorous and polite as a Japanese tea ceremony, but are boring and worthless. But the fact remains that good manners are more important in nurturing a civilized, dynamic, sophisticated discussion than knowledge or brains. In any group, there’s always going to be a wide range of erudition and intelligence. No one can do anything about their I.Q., but they can do something about their behavior. Without good manners, you don’t have communication, you have soliloquys, or harangues, or sterile arguments.

The real issue here is how to generate the right kind of argument. The Internet is always going to be dominated by arguments. The very factors that make it easy to be rude and self-absorbed also make it easier to have online arguments. This is a good thing. We don’t have enough arguments in our lives. It’s much harder to argue with an actual human being than it is with a paragraph on a computer screen. Yet arguments are a sign of a society that is awake and alive: The ur-texts of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato’s Dialogues, are exquistely polite arguments. The goal, then, is not to get rid of online arguments — an idea about as practical as the Walrus and the Carpenter’s visionary plan to use seven maids with seven mops to sweep all the sand off the beach — but to encourage the best kind, while discouraging the worst. How do we move away from destructively competitive and testosterone-driven arguments, and promote ones that are frank, passionate and engaged, yet preserve the fragile bonds of civility?

Two words: good manners.

Moderation plays a huge role in the inculcation of online manners. There are already many different types of moderation, from the most restrictive to the loosest, from ones enforced by the community itself, as on Slashdot, to ones run by employees of the site. At Salon, we have opted for minimal monitoring; we only monitor after postings go up, and only egregiously abusive posters are flagged, warned and very rarely banned. We do step in and highlight letters we think are noteworthy. The New York Times is much stricter, reading posts before they publish them and weeding out would-be posters who are off-topic or inflammatory. Other Web sites have their own rules. As the Internet evolves, moderation will evolve as well, becoming more varied and sophisticated and sorting Web sites into different categories. Online carnivores will have their red-meat sites, vegetarian verbalists will have theirs. That’s as it should be. But moderation can only do so much. If Web users made a conscious effort to see their posts as parts of a conversation with real people rather than as pronouncements, the online universe would be a more enlightening place.

Of course, this is a quixotic appeal. It’s asking a lot to suggest that people be polite online. It requires an almost Christ-like faith in the goodness and potential of humanity. The people who post most online are not likely to be shrinking violets, and they are likely to be highly argumentative — and not necessarily in the best way. The Internet’s libertarian, anarchistic ethos often seems to foster a perverse insistence on thumbing one’s nose at any strictures on behavior, including self-generated ones. Moreover, the whole idea of having civilized discussions runs against the most powerful currents in American society. Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are not making gazillions of dollars because they’re conducting Oxford Union debates. In a larger sense, “asking” the Internet to do anything is like asking the universe to do something. It seems absurd on the face of it.

All true. And yet everyone who posts on the Internet is a human being who can choose how he or she wants to behave. The Web’s ethos is absolutely compatible with self-discipline and a self-generated concern for others — indeed, without it, that radical political philosophy dissolves into destructive selfishness.

The Internet is a mirror of humanity. It would be a fine thing, and an important thing, if when we look in that mirror, we see a reflection of the species that created the British Parliament, built the Taj Mahal and wrote the U.S. Constitution, or even just the species that says “thank you” to the toll taker. The Internet is vast. A little more civilization might even make it beautiful.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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