Dinner and a Tweet

August 18, 2011

"Save the neck for me Clark!"

I’ve had a lot of readers ask that I continue to explore the issues of civility as it relates to technology. There seems to be a great deal of interest around the subject of civility and social networking, in particular. While I’ve covered cyber-bullying and the enabling of incivility by the anonymity provided by the internet, I hadn’t thought about the mechanics  of incivility in the social networking space until just recently.

I think the reason that I haven’t dug into social networking as a source of uncivil behaviors is because, like you, I enjoy using technologies like Facebook and LinkedIn. I like re-connecting with friends and colleagues that I haven’t seen for months, years or even decades. I enjoy it when I receive a request to connect to someone that I first met when I was 6 years old but haven’t seen since graduation day from high school. It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I’ve been forced to acknowledge the dark side to social networking; a messy underbelly that most of us react to by “de-friending” those in our circle of connections and acquaintances. And I’ve finally come to grips with what fuels that uglier side of reconnecting via the internet. It comes down to following a simple guideline your grandmother probably taught you.

Before I dive into that particular re-discovery, I think it is worthwhile to visit a component of this issue that I’ve written about before. It is really important that we accept and understand that social networking is not the same as having a relationship with someone. Connecting with someone on Facebook is not the same thing as a healthy and helpful friendship. It isn’t the distance or the digital nature of social networking that makes this so – people who are truly friends can certainly agree that social networking tools can be a useful communication channel. The difference is, true friends know that social networking isn’t the ONLY communication channel. In fact, true friends will certainly know that social networking is, at best, a sub-optimal communication channel.

The problem with social networking today is that we all fall into the trap of thinking that the short updates provided by a “friend” that we haven’t been in the same room with for 3, 7 or 20 years is a complete picture of everything that that person is, was and will be. I’ve said before that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of social networking, familiarity often breeds an attitude of entitlement.

Because I have watched you post updates, comments and photos for the past year – I feel entitled to share my observations, opinions and even my beliefs in the hopes of  “helping” you. Sometimes we invite this often unwanted feedback upon ourselves, by sharing too much information on our social networking pages. “Drunk dialing” has been replaced with “drunk updating” – and I can tell you for certain that receiving an update from an inebriated friend, co-worker or family member is never anything but an awkward experience. Well, maybe not always awkward – there are those moments in time when “drunk updating” can be pretty funny, but most times we’re laughing at you and not with you.

What I find most interesting about behaviors on Facebook and through other social networking outlets is the complete lack of regard for a simple rule that I’m certain you’ve heard, or may have even been taught to you by your parents or grandparents.

Quick, what are the three subjects you never discuss at the dinner table?

Sex – Religion – Politics

Think about the intimacy of a dinner with friends. A social occassion sharing dinner and conversation with people you haven’t seen for, let’s say 14 years. There you are enjoying the opportunity to reconnect, when your dinner partners launch into a lengthy monologue on why they think our current elected officials are awful. Or maybe you initiate a conversation about your ingrained hatred for a particular religious faith. Or even worse, you start up a discussion about your wild weekend in Cabo where you blacked out at least 4 times, lost your digital camera and you keep chasing down embarassing pictures posted on the internet of your “private moments”.

I’m guessing that in any of these instances, you’d pretty much determine that having dinner together again would not be happening. Ever.

When it comes to civil behaviors in America, particularly in reference to the use of technology, I feel compelled to emphasize a very important reminder. Freedom of speech is NOT the same as freedom from responsibility for what you say. Disparaging someone’s faith, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial situation, social standing, socio-economic theories, race, cultural background – are making these types of  inflammatory comments the kind of things that “friends” do to each other? If the entire premise of Facebook is to “friend” someone – why on earth would you use that networking channel to treat a “friend” so poorly? We tend to only register horror and concern about the power of social networking when the abuse of the technology by a bully or a group of bullies results in the suicidal death of a teenager. But the simple day-to-day interactions of appending comments to our friend’s updates in the social networking space have power over our lives and our self-image. An acidic comment by a “friend” to an update we’ve made or a picture we’ve posted can, and frequently does, ruin our entire day. Words have power. And those words stay on your Facebook page – they don’t just disappear on the wind (well, unless you delete them – but if you have to delete a comment it pretty much proves the point that your “friend’s” comment struck a nerve).

When participating in the social networking community, we would be wise to heed the words of author Chuck Palahniuk. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can hurt like hell.”

Or maybe my mother had the best advice on the subject of how to treat people in a civil manner. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

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Anonymity – Familiarity’s Ugly Cousin and the Bane of Civility

October 7, 2009
Is being invisible a good thing?

Is being invisible a good thing?

The availability of information, in both volume and speed, has been one of the key contributions made by technological innovation in fostering incivility. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, does breed contempt. But, the greater threat to civility and civil behaviors is most certainly the cloak and veil that technology now provides to each and every one of us in our dealings with each other.

It is a fascinating condition of the human race; that we embrace both the best and worst that a technology has to offer. While I will spend some time today writing about chat rooms, avatars and hate-speech camoflauged as political commentary – the tendency for humans to use and misuse an innovation applies to stone wheels just as much as it does to bits and bytes.

The lowly hammer; it is most commonly used to build things. Hammering nails and framing houses, or fixing the dog house are natural activities for this technological innovation that took us beyond pounding some form of a peg with a large rock. But, that same hammer on many occasions, has been wielded and brandished as a weapon. Pounding a nail or bashing a skull – humans seem to find the light and dark within every single implement. Guns, axes, dynamite, atom smashing, oxycontin; the list of innovations that we corrupt is as long as history itself.

Computer based technology is no different, but the consequences for civility are just as concerning. The darkest aspect of technology, even darker than our continuous exposure to on-line fraud and theft, is the lack of responsibility and accountability that the anonymity of a virtual personality provides. The disconnectedness of being constantly connected manifests in the tendency for human beings to say things in an internet chatroom or on a comment string associated with a news story that they would never, ever say in the presence of a real live human being.

I’ll use an example to highlight how frightening the veil of anonymity has become, and how easy it is to be uncivil in the virtual world. I could link this posting to hundreds, if not thousands, of comments to news stories. But, a recent story in my hometown is certainly as good as any to drive home the point. On September 23, 2009 the Columbus Dispatch reported on a local speech given by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood took issue with conservative talk show hosts, suggesting that their analysis and rhetoric (“trash talk”) had contributed to a decline in civility.

As I have written before, I don’t find that I learn much about civility by observing or researching politicians or political analysts. We live in an age where conservatives use inflammatory words and phrases but deny that they have any responsiblity for the potential consequences should things get out of control. And, in this same age, liberals are screaming for a more civil discourse and the complete elimination from memory of any of the bad behaviors and vitriolic rhetoric that they leveraged when they were in the minority.

I’m reminded of what Will Rogers had to say about the state of political behavior in the United States some 80 years ago – “I bet after seeing us, George Washington would sue us for calling him “father.””

What I would ask of you is that you read the comments to this news article, as many of the 1265 as you can stomach. Rather than addressing whether Mr. LaHood’s argument is defensible (are conservative talk show hosts contributing to a decline in civility), the comments immediately focus on demanding that the reader subscribe to one political ideology or another. Since I am in the mood for quotes today, the seething anger and vicious statements made by commentators on this news story recalls a point by Oscar Wilde “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

Hate, racism, rants, venom – all of these uncivil aspects of discourse, and more, manifest themselves in the comments to this news story. Many of the people on this comment thread could be your neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, your boss or your community leaders. Unfortunately, we can’t tell, because no one knows for sure who they are really are. In fact, one of them might be you. With names like “theTruth”, “Troll”, “Legal American” and “Master Yoda” not only are we denied the opportunity to know who is writing, the writer is given carte blanche to be as uncivil as they want to be. Read some of the most antagonistic postings in this thread, and then wonder on whether the person who wrote it would be inclined to say the same thing – verbatim – in church or at a PTA meeting. Would they be so bold to stand up in a meeting of Rotarians, a Chamber of Commerce or a school board meeting and share the same sentiments? Not only is the answer a resounding “no”, most of these writers would be personally embarassed to make such offensive comments in any public setting.

But, the internet changes everything. The upstanding citizen within our community that deems the anonymous “tagging” of a train box car with graffiti that points out any number of social ills in our inner city as a blight on society, sees no parallel to their own anonymous “tagging” of news stories and blog posts in the same light. The graffiti artist is a social misfit (as opposed to an artist), but an anonymous commentator spouting a hate filled response is not? The anonymity of the internet has created an environment where the absolute worst aspects of our human nature manifest themselves; stalking, pedophilia, bullying to the point of driving someone to suicide, revenge postings of nude photographs of former girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses.

If you were invisible, and could not be held responsible for what you say or do – what would you do with such power? Maybe you don’t need to think about an answer to this thought experiment. Maybe all you need to do is re-read some of the postings you have made in the vast anonymity of the internet. Maybe being invisible has made us much less civil.


Familiarity Breeds Contempt – For Civility

September 24, 2009
Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

Cartoon Credit - Hubspot

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.