computers and civility

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Greta Christina writes about anonymity and manners on the Internet here, and she makes several good points. She sees "some truth" in the common lament that online anonymity can lead to rude remarks and cruel comments, but she also sees the benefits that Internet detractors tend to overlook:

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn't just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies -- or stay silent in the face of them.

And that, I think, is a good thing.

I've felt this pressure myself. In person, I've definitely backed down from arguments -- dropped the subject, changed the subject, agreed to disagree, whatever -- to keep the social engine running smoothly. And I haven't always felt proud of myself for doing so. I've compromised my honesty and my beliefs, let stupid and terrible and patently false ideas slide unchallenged, in order to defuse conflict and awkwardness in social situations. And I think most of us have.


There are thousands -- millions -- of people for whom the online world is the only place where they can speak their truth, and explore the questions and details and complexities of their truth, without fear of reprisal. Not just fear of social disapproval, either, but fear of actual, practical, losing- your- job type reprisal. There are thousands, millions, of people who have no place other than the 'Net where they can safely say, "I'm queer," "I'm an atheist," "I think the way I was brought up is stupid and evil." For them, the fact that there's a social arena where it's okay to disagree and argue and not fret too much about what other people think or whether your opinions are hurting their feelings... it's not just a relief. It's a sanity- saver.

As someone with a writing style self-described as "pompous asshole," I know that I've definitely sent emails and written blog posts that are much more honest than they would have been had the conversations been held in person. The ability to consider one's words, to research the evidence before speaking, to wait for that moment of l'esprit de l'escalier before commenting allows many of us to express ourselves online where were would be habitually silent offline.

We can celebrate the ability of technology to provide an anonymous (if we want it to be) forum even as we mourn the dwindling of face-to-face conversations--whether for reasons of convenience, of comfort, or even of safety.

(Like Greta Christina and her readers, I am also searching for a secular alternative to "godsend" as a description; the Internet means that much to me.)

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I've been on the giving and receiving end of the Internet snap. The only thing I can recommend is to not view the exchanges separate (Internet v. Life) and try to merge the two. If you feel like you've backed down from arguments in life, then you have confrontation issues. You don't have to be a screaming fudge tunnel to argue in real life, and you don't have to be one on the Internet. I've been pushed to that status, however, in both life and Internet life, and lowered myself to the occasion in both places.

In a sense, I've learned from the Internet how to be more confrontational in life, and I have learned from life how to do it with style and understatement.

I've had the misfortune of having my written words (blog) used against me in real life. I was fairly anonymous but I made the mistake once of commenting on my SIL's cancer blog with the wrong blogger account. In a matter of days, my so-called "friend" was threatening me. Since then I have taken a firm stance to never say anything that I can't say in person. I use this quote by Thomas Jefferson to remind me that anything I put out there is fair game.

"When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property."

I think he's talking about money in that quote, but I use it as applying to the Internet.

I suffer so badly from chronic "staircase wit", that I am often two weeks late with my snappy comebacks!

Now I am trying to think of a substitute for godsend...
lucky break?

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on July 15, 2008 11:58 PM.

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