June 07, 2011

If you can't say something nice

The internet has increased our ability to express ourselves. In no place is this more obvious, unfortunately, than in the leaps and bounds we've made in our ability to be unkind to each other in blog comments. This increased capacity puts Moore's Law to shame, and then anonymously calls it an a*#$@*e, LOL. Inasmuch as we recognize this as an issue, we mostly seem to accept it as inevitable. We resort to the "grow a thicker skin" or "can't stand the heat..." bromides, shake our heads at our cruel and ungrammatical world, and strive to become less sensitive, as if this were a good thing.

Accepting this situation ignores that, by and large, we are thousands of times (I've measured) more civil to each other in the physical world. If putting up with our online behavior were a requirement for interacting with strangers offline, none of us would ever leave the house. Why call out the difference? It suggests that our current online situation doesn't have to be the way it is, which is tantalizing: incivility worsens the quality of our online lives, and, from a more immediately practical perspective, I think it lessens online participation.

An example: After years of free-for-all commenting on my blog, I started pre-moderating comments to keep the rage out; it wasn't really a solution, though, in that it didn't do anything for my quality of life. When my blog (on blog software so out-of-date that Gutenburg would have thought to himself "what an a*#$@*e, LOL") broke such that comments stopped working, I just never fixed it. And... I liked it. After a while, my pro-participation conscience kicked in, so I started, in each post, directing people to a discussion group to give me feedback. The tone of conversation improved, but only in the "silence is golden" sense -- people just didn't bother. The baby, unfortunately, was gone along with the acrid, stinging bathwater (note: do not bathe a baby this way). Clearly, there is value in the immediacy of on-blog commenting. But how much does this ease of action contribute to unkindness? To what degree is anonymity the problem? If it's a major part of it, how much of it would we trade off for a more civil internet?

So, internet -- what can we do about this? I'm interested in short term blog-specific solutions, but the problem is an even more interesting one in general. If caring for the health of a participatory internet is our mission, and incivility harms participation, perhaps we should be thinking about this.

I'm really interested in what you think. Email me - the address is my first name at mozilla dot com.

Posted by madhava at 10:59 PM