In my college days, we’d gather for pizza and a huge jug of cheap wine. We’d sit on the floor, gathered around a coffee table, and hold long discussions about the fine points of just about everything. There was always someone whose imagination took the discussion beyond reality into the realm of absurd extremes. There was always someone who made fun of everything and turned every remark into a sarcastic joke.
We laughed at these forays into the land beyond reality or into parody land because they were funny and we all knew that going to extremes was a part of the creativity of the conversation.
Now when we hold these kinds of discussions about the fine points of just about everything, we are doing it on the Internet: in comment threads or in short bursts on Twitter. Sometimes anonymously. Everyone gets to express their opinion just like we did back in the all-night conversations of yore. But we aren’t looking at each other, we aren’t friends who can judge how much everyone else has had to drink, how serious everyone is, and who’s indulging in a flight of imagination to carry the conversation beyond its logical limits.
Here’s the point. We haven’t learned how to do these free-for-all discussions on the Internet without inflicting pain. Sometimes what we do is civil and respectful, but sometimes it crosses over into an area that hurts. Perhaps because anonymity gives people a feeling that it’s okay to be insulting and demeaning. Perhaps because we have no body language and tone of voice connected to typed and transmitted electrons.
For whatever reason, we aren’t handling things well. We damn people who are giving their all to their community. We call little girls disgusting names. We insult people who disagree with us. We comment on how people look or dress. We threaten violence.
It’s time we stop spending our time talking about how to ignore the trolls and instead develop a plan to help people learn how to act on the Internet. A big plan, lead by charismatic leaders who can teach with effective results. An education plan that sets up social conventions, rules of etiquette, and behavioral standards for all of us.
We need web sites, convention speakers, media articles, YouTube videos, and every other potential communication tool to be full of people sharing ideas about good behavior on the Internet. We need to be trained in civil conversation skills on the Internet. It’s a new world, we need to learn new skills.
We’ve done it with other issues. We can do it with conversation skills on the Internet. How can you help?