Manners on the internet
posted by Alice Ristroph
I’m sure more experienced bloggers will have much to say about this New York Times article about civility (or lack thereof) on blogs. I’m particularly interested in the article’s focus on blog commenters. I’ve often wondered whether the ruder comments on blogs illustrate the truth of the tale of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic—with the protection of anonymity, our true (and sometimes ugly) colors appear. (I’ve also seen signed comments that show much less civility than people tend to display in face-to-face interactions, so it is not anonymity alone that is shaping internet incivility.)
The Times article describes proposals for self-enforced blogging norms.
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.
I suppose this is laissez-faire enough to satisfy speech libertarians. But is it a good idea to discourage or disallow rudeness on the internet? If in fact the anonymity of internet speech allows people to display their true colors, do we want to obscure those colors? I recently watched Harvey, the classic old movie in which James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a very generous and kind but perhaps slightly crazy man with a six-foot rabbit as his companion. A taxi driver warns Dowd’s sister that if she has her brother “cured,” he will become “a perfectly normal human being, and you know what stinkers they are.” Could internet rudeness be a useful and comparatively harmless reminder of what stinkers we are?