Friday, March 03, 2006

How we teach our kids to behave badly online

I don't write about everything that happens either online or offline. In fact, I don't say much about most things that happen in my life. But it has occurred to me that were I to attempt to document every little detail, things would gradually stop happening because I'd spend all my time at the computer typing about increasingly meaningless moments in an otherwise wasted existence.

As it is, I go out and do things, sometimes particularly interesting things, and I just sort of keep them to myself. The Internet-connected world has deprived us of too much privacy as it is. I don't mean privacy in the sense of everyone knowing everything about you -- people tend to just make up stuff about other people as it suits their nefarious purposes anyway. Rather, I mean we have fewer and fewer moments of quiet, personal reflection.

Time was, if someone took the time to set their thoughts down for others to read, they were almost assured a place in the literary hall of boring school assignments. Now schools are trying to prevent students from reading each other's shared thoughts. It's no longer appropriate for teens to think for themselves. Now they need to shut up and listen to the mediocre ambivalence that political correctness has injected into our school systems.

We'll produce a new generation of great thinkers by repressing free thought because those who feel repressed will rebel.

On the other hand, I can see why teachers and principals sometimes just want to tell the kids to stay quiet and listen. We've empowered our children to speak out and take action without showing them the purpose of meaningful action, the value of considerate action, and the consequences of ill-considered action. The ill-considered actions are most appealing not because they are acts of rebellion (in most cases they are simply acts of stupidity) but because they verge on the outrageous.

The Internet encourages, provokes, and nurtures outrage. Outrage is the desired method of interaction on the Internet probably because we can only glimpse the emotion other people feel in their online exchanges when they are outraged. Outrage elevates the impersonal keyboard to a facet of body language not previously explored.

How we type reveals a great deal about what we are feeling. Not the explicit, intentional emoticons, uses of CAPITAL LETTERS TO EMOTE SCREAMING, nor even the insertion of ^%^%#$#^%# non-alphanumeric characters to represent the self-imposed censorship of feigned propriety.

Rather, our typing style changes when we are feeling strong emotions. Perhaps we make more typographical errors, perhaps we simply are in such a rush to express ourselves through an inherently ineffective mechanical medium, perhaps we just want to spit it out. Whatever the reason, short and brief comments -- even strung together as long-winded drafts of emotional reaction -- tend to signify that someone is upset or excited. Excited posts tend to be more silly than insulting and upset posts tend to be more insulting than anything else.

But there are other typing styles that come out. Some people, when faced with the unknown, fall back on familiar catch-phrases and wind-speak. Wind-speak is what people resort to when they don't know what they are talking about. They just type in things they or others have said repeatedly as if someone is pumping a bellows and filling them full of hot air. Windspeakers usually inject themselves into arguments as "neutral third parties" (there is no such thing as a neutral third party because you inevitably favor one side or the other in your judgements, even when you're knocking heads together).

It is impossible to not communicate your emotional state. No matter how inspecific you try to be, no matter how ubiquitous your remarks are designed to appear, regardless of how much care you express in not appearing to dictate, you reveal something about your emotions through what you type. If you just type rhetorical aphorisms, you're probably in a numbed state of mind where you don't want to deal with what someone is saying. Why are you responding? Because you cannot get around reading whatever the other person is saying.

Forum moderators and site admins are subjected to a range of emotional ventings all the time. It's inevitable that they should want to vent for themselves on occasion. Some moderators are especially good at flouting the rules one way and enforcing the same rules another way. By doing so, they reveal their resentment of some discussion group members -- or at least their frustration with those people.

Tunnel visionistic moderation takes many forms, and most people practice it without realizing it. They zoom in on whatever annoys them and ignore whatever else is relevant. I recently subscribed to yet another mailing list only to find no less than 3 philosophical debates in raging progress. I have contributed to none of them. In fact, I unsubscribed from the list after several days because the fighting will obviously continue for many more days, perhaps weeks.

The so-called neutralists always attempt to restructure any argument they disagree with by rewording what another person says. They lose all semblance of neutrality in doing so because they openly reveal their hostility to the people whom they presume to speak for.

For example, if Dan writes, "I gave forty paragraphs of examples that Bob was using this list to promote his back-hoe rental agency", Shirley may step in as the self-appointed Voice of Reason with, "Dan, accusing Bob of selling worthless merchandise isn't helping the situation."

Dan doesn't have to express an opinion on whether Bob sells worthless merchandise. Shirley, who is tired of Dan's complaining about Bob, will attribute that opinion to Dan. These types of pseudo-attributions are common on the Internet. People are routinely infuriated by this approach (and there are people who have seen me go on a weeks-long bender after being subjected to this kind of nonsense myself).

The truth is out there, buried in B.S., but for a long time I've noticed that online discussions become more predictable because people really do use an online body language. The more hostile you are toward a point of view or another person, the more you reveal your hostility through your misguided attempts to mediate a dispute that really doesn't involve you.

The majority of flame war posts tend to be between people trying to end flame wars and people who would prefer not to involve themselves in the flame wars to begin with. It is an unwritten law of the Internet that every flame war will continue as long as there is at least one person who is sick of the flame war.

A small percentage of people actively encourage disputes and flame wars. Most people only say something, usually to the wrong person, when they are tired of wading through the flame posts. What's truly sad about the behavior of self-appointed neutralists is that they tend to favor the sides with the least moral credibility.

In the list that I referred to above, one of the three disputes regarded how effectively administrators in the community were fulfilling their duties. The self-appointed neutralist whose comments I read took the position of, "Criticizing the admins is counter-productive."

Not surprisingly, the person to whom that comment was directed had not actually criticized the admins. The person being reprimanded for criticizing the admins had only asked how effectively they can be expected to perform certain functions.

And that is pretty much why I unsubscribed. I've seen enough flame wars to know that this kind of misguided blind-siding attack reveals a level of hostility or stupidity that cannot be thwarted.

Hostility may go away in time if people leave each other alone. It doesn't always happen, but there is hope. There is no cure for stupidity, and plenty of people seem more than willing to inject themselves stupidly into arguments without considering the consequences of ill-considered action. Where I have used that expression before?

Oh, yes. I was speaking about how our teenagers are getting out of control with their online comments. The not-so-funny thing is, it's not really a problem that arises with teenagers. All children observe what the adults around them do.

The Internet long ago abandoned all sense of civility and considered action. Today, we share our thoughts in an environment where toxic remarks and duplicitous third-party interventions are used to assert dominance and control over undesired situations and people. That is, we tend to behave like uncivilized animals on the Internet because we have not learned about the consequences of ill-considered actions.

The consequences are rarely personal. Instead, they are communal, and when a community suffers more than an individual, few people tend to sit up and notice the pain. The community just lumbers along in oblvious ignorance.

Our schools will not rein in the kids who are running out of control on the Internet until everyone else starts behaving appropriately. And the kids don't have to be geniuses to see that people treat each other badly. All they have to be is sensitive to the subtle changes in the way we type our messages.

And you know what? Since they are growing up in an online world, they see these subtle changes sooner than most adults.


Post a Comment

<< Home