I often bemoan the subjective and pithy remarks in blogs and blog comments. The internet is rife with invective. Radio National’s Media Report had a panel discussion on Civility Online (September 2008). The proposition was:
“Town Square or playground of the keyboard warriors? Why does so much online interaction end up agressive, polarised and anything but enlightening?“
The panel was comprised of Andrew Bartlett — blogger and former leader of political party the Australian Democrats; George Megalogenis — journalist and blogger; and Laurel Papworth — blogger, speaker and social networking consultant.
Unfortunately, the panel did not really address the question posed to them about the lack of civility online. Instead they had an, albeit interesting discussion, about their own blogs and their strategies of moderating comments. They discussed policies of behaviour on their blogs such as codes of conduct and rules of engagement. Papworth and Megalogenis debated rating systems. Papworth advocated this gaming strategy as a tactic for the community to self monitor bad behaviour and Megalogenis critisised it for potentially hiding content.
Christy Lange, an art critic, addressed a similar question to the panel about the nature of discussion on blogs. In a contemplation on the difference between writing for print and writing for blogs (Critical Values, Frieze 22 April 2009) she presented a dichotomy: irreverant and instantaneous blogs versus considered researched printed articles. Lange pointed to Snark: Its Mean, It’s Personal and its Ruining our Conversation (2008) by New Yorker film critic David Denby. Snark is his term for the blogger’s voice which he describes as an “evil brand of pure ridicule“. Denby is obviously not a fan.
So, back to the central question: “Why does so much online interaction end up agressive, polarised … ?”. Lange thinks that the “blogger’s snark is actually a reaction to the mediocre critisicm and affirmative spin that can dominate the printed press“. In other words – PR. I think this is a good point that acounts for the motivation of some blog authors. Lange notes that blogging’s offhand subjectivity “prompts candid and sometimes emotional responses from readers“. So it seems that authors and commentors alike want to let it all out.
In the panel discussion Laurel raised the interesting point of online identity. She advocated the use of user profiles in (newspaper) blogs, suggesting commentor’s behaviour would improve if they were made accountable by being identifiable (i.e. all blog comments linking to a profile page for context). But I think that this is a strategy that looks at the problem, not why the problem exists.
I cannot help but think this behaviour arises because we are interacting with a machine. One day our virtual profile may be inseperable to our real life identity but I don’t think that all people have this relationship with the internet quite yet. Let’s not forget that the internet is a playground where people experiment with identity. People want to be beligerant, biggoted, uncensorered. Perhaps even more so in a civilised politically correct world. People are typing away at a desk behind a machine, by themselves despite the commuity listening on the other end.