Fighting on the Internet – is there anything we can do?

When all is said and done, some debates will be acrimonious regardless of the medium in which they are conducted. What asynchronous public discussion boards or forums are liable to do is vastly aggravate any tendencies in this direction. And of course, some people find fighting on the Internet very life-affirming. This is fine if they can hook up with other recreational belligerents, but otherwise they take some handling.

One way or another people who attempt to carry out asynchronous textual debates online are prone to dish out and/or experience angry and insulting messages. Even if you’re careful yourself, your readers can explode in response. It’s not surprising really – the social cues of tone, expression, stance etc are missing and the medium encourages rapid unpolished responses. Moreover in these democratised times, everybody is encouraged to consider their contribution valid and deserving of a platform, so it’s not as if the right to respond is restricted only to accomplished writers and thinkers.

So be it – is there anything we can do? Well, effective as this may be:

we’re not going to stop having these debates at a distance. Assuming you are not in fact attempting to provoke your correspondent, one way to avoid web rage is to give ample benefit of the doubt, take pains with language, and argumentation, and slow down. Unless you do this, people will take you for a thug or an e-social inept.

There are also some technical ways to replace social cues. MyChingo is an audio comment tool which at least injects some tone and non-verbal emotion into the words. Video comments like Seesmic give you the whole shabang minus the pheromones (and maybe that’s to everybody’s advantage).

Thing is, I’d say all discussion board conversation have some educational function – this is why they’re both public and available in posterity. People are supposed to be able to encounter that debate once it’s gone cold and actually be able to follow the thought processes of the participants.

If you value this, then text becomes not just a default due to a lack of anything better – it becomes important because of its unique texty properties: you can read it at your own pace; you can scan it rapidly for keywords or gist; and you can copy and paste it. Audio comments aren’t at all self-paced and relying on them exclusively would box up and hide all the contributions, making it impossible to scan the conversation as a whole or follow a particular dialogue within it.

So I’d argue that all multimedia comments require a textual form in addition. In fact I’d say that the transcript should take centre-stage, with the video available as a supplement, and the comments should be viewable in different ways, including threaded and flat (i.e. by scrolling).

Starting to sound a little less spontaneous now? Well, why not – maybe spontaneity is dispensible on comments boards.

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