I have recently received a lot of requests to write about the effects that technology has had on civility and civil behaviors. Technology alone, or the innovation of new technologies, hasn’t had much of an impact on civility at all. But, the adoption of those technologies and how they are utilized has definitely contributed to incivility. As an example, the technological innovation that created the gun resulted in a device that could be used to feed and sustain my family through hunting, or fight a war. How a technology is used is the principle thing. The way that we use technology today has resulted in a phenomenon that can lead directly to incivility and bad behaviors.
I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this point.
A couple of years ago, I created a Facebook account. My original purpose for doing so was to stay in contact with immediate as well as extended family members. Sharing photos and updating aunts and uncles on the latest accomplishments of our children was a low-effort activity through this social networking tool. But, then I started to get requests from friends and acquaintances. Who was I to turn down a request from a neighbor or a friend that I participated in community events with?
Then, the circle expanded. People started connecting to me that I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10, 15 or even 20 years. High school classmates and community theater colleagues, as well as their friends that I could barely remember. (Hi – I’m Billy’s 2nd cousin twice removed and we were at a party together once when we were 17 and I waved at you from across the yard. Friend me?)
Virtual communities and relationships have been in existence for a very long time. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are simply the next generation of social interaction enabled by a faster disassociated medium. There have been many technologies that have displaced face-to-face interaction. While ink and paper is an older form than electronic bulletin boards, email, chat and networking sites, even this medium is young when compared to other ancient methods of communicating without standing in front of each other. The virtual relationship is nearly as old as man. What is different is the speed of the technology, the information made available by that technology and most importantly, the false sense of community and relationship that the adoption of these new virtual forums has created.
The problem that technology utilization introduces, in relation to civility, is the problem of familiarity. Which brings me back to my personal Facebook experience.
Many of the folks that I connected to that were old school mates from 20+ years ago have lived an entire lifetime without any interaction between us. Our entire worldview, if it has not changed dramatically, has at least been influenced by 20 additional years of experience and age. Some of us have lost parents, children and spouses to accidents and illness. Some of us battled drug or alcohol addictions successfully. Many of us married, then divorced, then remarried. Some of us have blended families of hers, mine and ours when it comes to children. Some of us survived traumatic events and all of us have navigated a course through life that has resulted in the changing or modification of our core beliefs and values.
So, we post little tidbits of information and updates to our Facebook pages. Since we do not have the context of the prior 20 years to consider, our understanding of a person comes from these fragments of data that we synthesize into an assumption about each other.
Then, it happens. We believe that we are “familiar” with our old classmate. We think we know what they believe, how they feel and what is important to them because we have followed their Tweets for a year. Familiarity can be a dangerous thing. Because I believe that I know someone, I tend to act as if I am entitled to give them advice, comment on their situation or question their beliefs. When I become familiar, the taboo topics that Grandma and Grandpa told us were inappropriate for dinner conversation (sex, religion, politics) become fair game for discussion. This familiarity isn’t just limited to old friends. We develop this same sense of familiarity with celebrities, political candidates, religious leaders, bloggers, cult personalities from YouTube and a myriad number of other people. Because we have known them in a virtual world, we truly believe that we know them in the real world.
Familiarity breeds a sense of entitlement. When we feel entitled, we don’t feel bound by any constraints or limitations when we interact with each other. Without constraints or limits, we run the risk of being uncivil. If I make a rude comment about organized religion or personal faith to an old friend on Facebook, without the knowledge that religion or faith played an integral part in my friend’s personal journey and survival of the death of their child – I have applied a framework of virtual familiarity to a social interaction, with the result being a very uncivil behavior.
Technology enables a level of virtual interaction that is faster, is saturated with more information and can be cloaked in anonymity. Separately, none of these technological improvements foster incivility. But, when taken in a combination that allows a technology user to assume that the familiarity they have gained in a virtual realm is of equal weight and quality to a true relationship with someone; this is where incivility can, does and will continue to rear a very ugly head in our society.
Real relationships based on an unshakable respect for the value of each person in that relationship creates an environment where being uncivil is very difficult. Virtual relationships based on snippets of information that create a false sense of community with a person simply results in a roadway without the guard rails necessary for consistently civil behavior.