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 aggressive, 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.
The panel did not directly address the question posed to them about the lack of civility online but they did discuss their strategies for moderating comments on their own blogs. These included 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 criticised 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: irreverent 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 aggressive, polarised … ? Lange thinks that the “blogger’s snark is actually a reaction to the mediocre criticism and affirmative spin that can dominate the printed press“. In other words PR. I think this is a good point that accounts 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 commenters 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 commenter’s behaviour would improve if they were made accountable by being identifiable (i.e. all blog comments linking to a profile page for context). Does this suppose that the problem exists because people can get away with it through anonymity?
I cannot help but think this behaviour arises because we are interacting with a machine. One day our virtual profile may be inseparable to our real life identity. But now the internet is a playground where people experiment with identity. People want to be belligerent, bigoted, uncensored. Perhaps even more so in a civilised ‘politically correct’ world. People are typing away at a desk behind a machine, by themselves despite the community listening on the other end.