Sometimes when I get embroiled in a debate on the internet (which lately is often, due to my new gig at Talking Philosophy) I look up from time to time and think “are these real people or virtual people?” It’s like I’m talking to three dimensional people in a room, but then the vividness dissipates.

If we were all in the same room together, the conversation wouldn’t go the same way. There would be couplings based on factors that are invisible here. That’s one of the charms of the internet. In real life, two people would talk because they’re the same age, they’re attracted to each other, style cues draw them together, and the like. Here we don’t have those distractions.

Here’s my question. When we converse on the internet, should we think of others as real people—as if we actually were sitting in a room. Or is etiquette here different from normal etiquette?

Some people on the internet obviously think it’s different. People will say things on a blog they would never say in real life. For example, this week someone responded to a post of mine by saying:

Good grief, Ms. Kazez. I know you postmodern philosophers hate science, but you might try to investigate the field at least a little bit.

That vacuous, ill-reasoned nonsense such as this post is considered acceptable work in professional, academic philosophy is the #1 reason I’ve quit blogging.

Maybe that’s OK. Arguably the break from social conventions is part of the fun.

And maybe there's some benefit to internet rudeness. Who knows, if this commenter didn't get to eviscerate me on the internet, he might run into the street yelling his head off and stabbing people.

Or you could say no. Anything you say here does affect some real, flesh and blood person out in the world. No actual guts get spilled, but the normal rules of interaction ought to be in effect. Be patient, be respectful, listen…all that good stuff.

I admit to an unprincipled position. In any interaction involving me, let politeness reign. If two other people want to act like savages with each other, I actually find if fairly amusing.

p.s. Mark Vernon has a good post about social networking sites today.


Ophelia Benson said...

Some people seem more three dimensional than others, wouldn't you say? That is, some have more personality-suggestive ways of writing than others. I would say that you do, for instance.

Jean Kazez said...

I would say the same thing about you. --thought so the first time we "bumped" into each other at TP.

At this point there are a handful of people over there who make it into 3D very regularly. I actually think they really are real and not virtual.

Others, who knows.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with your contention that Barefoot Bum wouldn't have said that in real life! especially given his violent antipathy to all things religious and (some of) his reasons for that.

He read your post as ultra-relativist pomo. That is, he read it uncharitably, probably partly because he was thinking of you as two-dimensional. What I would be interested to know is whether someone else who often has strong opinions about things (especially religious ones) feels that she could have read it like that, were you not already 3-dimensional to her. Ophelia?

I guess the point I am making is that on-line people become 3D the more you have to do with them (and especially if you know their real name and a bit about them). At that point they become "a good guy" such that those of us not blessed with your naturally charitable nature, are more inclined to read them charitably. (Or vice versa of course; I mean, they become "not a good guy").

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Kazez said...

Naturally, I think my post was not readable as any sort of rubbish, even by someone who doesn't know me at all.

I think my sin in BB's eyes was seeing some commonalities between the minds of believers and non-believers. For anyone who only wants to see stupidity on the other side of the aisle, this is aggravating.

The charge of postmodernism is really funny, as the post took the view that there are right and wrong views not only about religion but about morality! This is about as un-postmodern as you can get.

Anonymous said...

It couldn't be read as pomo rubbish by someone reading with their brain switched on, no ("charitably" was the wrong word - all it required was the ability to get as far as the 3rd para).

I keep reminding myself that I should use emoticons more :-) to avoid those occasions when what I type as a relatively minor quibble about a fact is taken as an attack on a main thesis. I've come to the conclusion that language by itself, however carefully worded, just doesn't do it when it comes conveying tone in comments.

Anonymous said...

That's funny. You can "say" something with facial expressions so effectively, and words take so much longer and are easily misunderstood. I always fear though that emoticons seem overly cute, like dotting your "i's" with hearts. But really, they're very useful. Let's have more! :-)

pj said...

Re: facial expression; you also miss tone of voice, and the interactive nature of conversation. The 'you say', 'they say', turn-taking (plus inevitable time-lag) mean that it is very easy to misunderstand each other when commenting online.

In a real conversation you can just interupt and get them to clarify or rephrase something.

There is also a difference between commenting on someone's newspaper article or suchlike in a blog post, and talking about someone's comments in a discussion, where there will be at least a limited relationship developing, and finally in commenting regularly on e.g. B&W or TP where you will come across the same people repeatedly.

I must say I felt a little twinge when Mark Vernon turned up on a discussion on B&W where OB had commented on something he wrote, and I'd also slagged him off in the comments. It was very much a transition moment as he became a real person.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yes, I felt that twinge too, and not for the first time. (I disputed Matthew Nisbet once, years ago, long before the notorious 'framing' article in the LA Times etc etc - and he turned up to comment; I felt much abashed. I think there have been others like that, once or twice.)


I can't be sure, of course, but I don't think I would have read Jean's TP post the way BB did even if I had read it elsewhere by someone unknown. I think I think that because it hooks up with several things I've been reading and thinking lately, so I understood what she was talking about. I mean it would have been hard to misunderstand because it was about ideas I was already somewhat familiar with.

pj said...

That said, Steve Fuller turning up in comments normally makes me wish I'd been twice as obnoxious.

Jean Kazez said...

Just at the nick of time--

There was an amusing article in the New York Times yesterday about blog commenters.