Web Civility And Easter Bonnets genre: Indie-Script & Six Degrees of Speculation
Today the New York Times has an article discussing the state of civility in the blogosphere. The article opens with the question, "Is it too late to bring civility to the web?" Rather than answer the question directly, I'll offer a corollary observation that provides long established insight into the answer.
While some may see the blogosphere and the behavior of its participants as a new phenomenon, it isn't difficult to find an appropriate predecessor model. That model is found on the streets of any metropolitan area and it is called rush hour traffic and the prevalence of road rudeness...or in its extreme...road rage. Granted, personal attacks and snark on the internet are not likely to lead to fatalities, but if computers had wheels, it certainly would.
Last week, Tim O’Reilly, a conference promoter and book publisher who is credited with coining the term Web 2.0, began working with Jimmy Wales, creator of the communal online encyclopedia Wikipedia, to create a set of guidelines to shape online discussion and debate.
Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments without facing cries of censorship.
Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Wales talk about creating several sets of guidelines for conduct and seals of approval represented by logos. For example, anonymous writing might be acceptable in one set; in another, it would be discouraged. Under a third set of guidelines, bloggers would pledge to get a second source for any gossip or breaking news they write about.
Bloggers could then pick a set of principles and post the corresponding badge on their page, to indicate to readers what kind of behavior and dialogue they will engage in and tolerate. The whole system would be voluntary, relying on the community to police itself.
OK, not to belittle the intentions of these two men, but again I'll point to traffic to make my point. Anyone who has been blocked from merging into traffic from the onramp or had another vehicle veer suddenly into an opening the size of a small Yugo just in front of them at sixty miles an hour during rush hour or been flipped off by an otherwise perfectly normal looking housewife understands that badges serve little purpose in informing others of the behavior to be expected. I've been flipped off, cut off, and blown off by soccer mom vehicles sporting bumper stickers that say, "my child is an honor student at ABC grade school" as well as by those bearing the famous fish symbol containing the secret Christian code "ixoye"...intended to allow Christians to identify each other...and by vehicles bearing many other "values" driven badges.
The problem on the highway or the internet isn't going to be resolved through a badge system. Did anyone attend Easter mass yesterday and witness the value of symbols...no not the crucifix behind the altar or the statue at the entrance; I'm talking about the pretty new Easter outfits...complete with bonnets and bow ties. These are the outfits worn by the same people who also attend Christmas mass every year without fail...and then get into their shiny clean vehicle and race out of the parking lot without ever yielding to the old woman walking to her car that is parked in the back row because she forgot that it was Easter Sunday and foolishly arrived at the same time she does each and every Sunday.
Menacing behavior is certainly not unique to the Internet. But since the Web offers the option of anonymity with no accountability, online conversations are often more prone to decay into ugliness than those in other media.
Nowadays, those conversations often take place on blogs. At last count, there were 70 million of them, with more than 1.4 million entries being added daily, according to Technorati, a blog-indexing company. For the last decade, these Web journals have offered writers a way to amplify their voices and engage with friends and readers.
But the same factors that make those unfiltered conversations so compelling, and impossible to replicate in the offline world, also allow them to spin out of control.
I agree that anonymity is a problem on the blogosphere but it isn't new behavior as evidenced by the driving habits of countless adults. Frankly, if the problem cannot be extinguished on the roads when the consequences of such actions are far more dangerous and the potential to be caught (license plates anyone?) is greatly heightened, what should lead us to believe that the internet will be any different?
I respect the efforts of O'Reilly and Wales but the problem is far larger than the blogosphere and it has become a symptom of what ails our modern culture. We have learned to dehumanize others and to remain aloof and self absorbed...fully able to discount others regardless of the risks or the consequences. As my father has stated on countless occasions, if two people who supposedly love each other enough to get married can't find enough common ground to make more than half of all marriages succeed, what makes us think the remainder of our human interaction will be civil?
Let me offer another example. I like the Oakland Raiders and I've occasionally spent time reading some of their fan forums that exist. One would assume that Raider fans or fans of any ilk that support the same team would have a kinship...but they don't. Seriously, go find a forum for your favorite sports team and you will find nothing more than a group of individuals more focused upon demeaning the comments of others than joining in support of their chosen team. Ironically, many of these individuals are commenting on a team sport and offering their observations on how the "team" should weed out those players who detract from the team dynamic...all the while ridiculing the thoughts, appearance, heritage, age, and so on of their fellow fans. It is completely counter intuitive yet fully representative of what is so wrong with our "modern and civil" society.
One last warning by way of another example. I was driving by a local high school at the end of the school day and stopped by a red light at the closest intersection. Several cars in front of me were trying to turn left and once they had the green arrow, they were unable to turn as many of the students were crossing against the signal. Even worse, many of the same teenage children were scowling at the drivers trying to make that turn...enough so that it crossed my mind that if one of those drivers were to honk or yell out their window, they might find themselves extracted from their car and pummeled right there in the intersection.
So what's the warning? The parent that is attacking a blogger or another commenter in a comment thread or that is flipping off another driver while shuttling the neighborhood kids to soccer practice or raging about the ex-wife that wants her alimony check is raising the next generation...and they are raising them to want more, to demand more, to diminish others, to be confrontational, and to further undermine any remaining semblance of the civility that we espouse on badges and through trite symbols in a never ending spiral of hypocrisy and self-deception. A badge is worn on the surface and while I applaud the attempt to bring awareness, what we need must penetrate far deeper than the pretty outfits worn on Easter Sunday.
This article is linked at Outside The Beltway to a feature called Beltway Traffic Jam.