Do social networks change us?
Do they cause more rows?
Do we feel safer “having a go” online?
Perhaps people seem less “real” and we think can forget our manners online… Perhaps we push things a little further than we would in a face-to-face situation? It’s okay to fight with someone we’ll probably never meet, right? Maybe the part of us that normally says, ‘Leave it now, don’t forget his mum does your mum’s hair,’ doesn’t come into play in online interaction.
Maybe people really are nicer to people that they physically spend time with than those they meet online because they don’t really care about those with whom they social-network. That’s why there is so much more animosity online than you would see, say, between people chatting together in a coffee shop, right?
Well, no, I don’t think so.
I think it’s something else: I think outside of social-networking – in the “real” world if you will – interactions are more about body language, powerful voices, confident speakers, even accents perhaps… I think presence often dominates over content and the Internet takes away unfair advantages, meaning we don’t have to let go of issues that we really care about.
I think the Internet provides a level playing field. Those fears, concerns about our appearances, a lack of confidence, a speech impediment, an accent, worries that we won’t be listened to or respected and tens of other physical/social reasons get in the way of us being convincing or feeling like we’re being convincing. These things don’t matter or exist online.
I suspect a lot of people arguing online are not just arguing with the person they are interacting with – they are releasing arguments they have had to internalise when they’ve been overwhelmed, or quietened by a louder character or felt swamped in the physical world. For all its problems the Internet is freeing, it’s fairer, it brings us into contact with people we may never have met because of age, culture, location, or people we may have avoided meeting because of pre-conceived ideas about appearances.
There always has to be a last word though. Face-to-face disagreements generally end before things get too heated. We can physically see if someone’s going to shout us down, try to make us look like a fool, out-wit us with speedier reactions. Or we can tell that we’re going too far and risk losing our audience. And a verbal disagreement often can be interrupted or diverted naturally. We can get distracted or cause our own distractions in face-to-face. In an online chat this stopping seems to be a problem.
Real life, face-to-face situations may seem more pleasant but they are probably only more pleasant on the surface. People are just not always saying what they think. To a point this is surely a good thing. Yes, some things are best left unsaid. And there has to be a point at which we let someone else have the last word – even if we feel they are wrong, or they have insulted our intelligence by misinterpreting what we have said. Otherwise it doesn’t stop. We can end up defending ourselves and not our position.
Online we probably don’t shut up soon enough.
In face-to-face we often shut up too soon because we are not confident enough to defend a point-of-view.
I know which I think is worse.
I didn’t want this post to be about me, but I am adding my personal experience from the comments (below) here so that you can see where I’m coming from:
In over 12 years of online communicating I have come across many situations where things have been said that I know I wouldn’t have been involved with offline. That was the whole point of this: to emphasise that online conversations – on the whole – are good and useful and freeing.
I had one friend at school with whom I felt I could be myself and argue safely with. We were very close friends despite being polls apart politically. When she left at 15 I had no one that I felt safe to argue with. I’ve spent my life feeling dominated and frustrated by other people’s physical presence – even most of my family and my in-laws – so have sat through SO many discussions quietly whilst screaming in my head that I disagree or have an alternative viewpoint. I can’t emphasise enough how big of a problem it’s been for me.
3 years working in a pub taught me a lot about human behaviour too and I noticed a lot of bullshitters dominating discussions whilst quiet clever people looked on. It’s absolutely astounding how many people are fooled by physical presence, or a well-spoken or loud voice.
It wasn’t until I began using online forums with the OU in 2000 that I began to find the security to argue again. But it took time and I made a lot of mistakes, and I still go back to scaredy Rachel in face-to-face situations.
I love the Internet for taking away the bullshitters’ unfair advantage – I call it cheating – of drowning out other people or talking down to them. I wouldn’t even be able to begin counting the number of times a tone of voice has stopped me dead and I’ve allowed someone to “win” (only in their tiny little minds though!) just because they are overbearing. It happens all the time.
I did a psychology course in 2010 and a chunk of the course was about computer-mediated-communication. One of the course tutors remarked (it may have been mine, but I never have anything to do with the tutors!) that an online social life is no substitution for a real social life. And THAT’S why I wrote this post – because I think it can be a VERY good substitution for a “real” social life so long as we remember that we are still dealing with real people and it is actually “real”.
Even online I still think some ignorant and stubborn people have an unfair advantage, perhaps, because you’ll never get them to understand your thinking and you simply have to give up. There will have to be times when I state my opinion and leave it because I’m getting nowhere or I have been misunderstood. It feels like you’re letting someone win and so I find that very hard (perhaps compounded by the fact that it’s been happening all my life and so I LOATHE having my intelligence insulted!) but it’s one of the most important skills of online communication: to know when to let go, and I’ve noticed recently that I’m getting much better at it.