I just got into an argument with a friend of a friend about a very sensitive subject. That's not the point of this node though. The point is that we wouldn't have been fighting if we were in the same room. It's not that either of us are assholes online, the problem seems to be that when you are in an online discussion, the time put into each message is minimal enough that there are often gaps in the content. These gaps leave just enough room that after dealing with trolls we assume the worst about each other.
Were we in the same room, talking and gesturing and expressing with our faces, then these gaps would not be gaps at all. Our facial grammar would build bridges, and other nonverbal cues would help proceed to greater understanding and we would walk away knowing a little bit more about each other and with a slightly different view of the world around us. It could have been a stimulating and interesting conversation, and we might have become fast friends.
We were not talking in person, however, we were typing to each other online. This makes things different, because online we (and this is a different, larger, we that includes you) have developed a culture in which outrage and the outrageous is both common and considered the height of wit. This is funny in the catbox, it is funky in IRC, and it is sort of bizarre on slashdot, but when strangers meet it makes for dangerous waters. Particularly when something contentious has been said.
When reading through an online discussion, things can often become difficult. The medium, which we are desperately trying to avoid being the whole of the message, almost purposely forces us to either be reactionary jerks, or be more thoughtful and kind and accepting than we knew possible. Chances for confusion abound: Is the person who is disagreeing with you doing it to be funny? Do they mean it? Are they smiling? What the hell is that that ^_^ thing? Is it like :)? And what the hell does :) mean anyway? Does it mean sarcasm? Does it mean the person is joking? Does it mean they are trying to put it in the nicest possible way? How dare they! I H8 THEM 4EVAR!
This experience has being boiling together with a recent rereading of Snow Crash, and makes me see the importance of several things. These are important in life in general, but everybody on the internet's general tetchieness makes them even more important:
- Be careful how you write
- Words have power. And you know what that means. But more than that, besides the obvious power to inspire and instruct that comes from great writing, words have an even greater power to confuse, befuddle, and lead astray. Bad and unclear writing is worse on the internet than it is in real life, because one bad message or posting can spoil the whole thread, board, or node. People responding to something they misunderstood because it was poorly written is one of the classic causes of the most asinine flamewars. Clarity is key, otherwise you could end up very exhaustingly violently agreeing with someone who completely agrees with you, but still somehow feeling pissed off.
- Be careful how you read
- Words have power. But hardly anyone slings them with excellence, and nobody does so every single time. When reading missives that have been hastily jotted down, like just about everything you read on the internet, try and read with a sensitive eye. Try and take everything in the best possible light. You might end up feeding a troll occasionally, but that's much better than inadvertently becoming one yourself.
Some day we will have a wonderful metaverse where our communications will be carried with perfect clarity and with just as much understanding as was intended, where we will finally be able to "condense fact from the vapor of nuance" as we come to a greater understanding of the mass of humanity we live in and world peace will naturally arise as we realize that we are all one and that to attack another is to do violence against ourselves. This is not that day, however, and as a professional computer scientist and amateur cynic I promise you that day is a very long way off. So until that day comes, write carefully and read carefullyier. You never know who might be reading your curt in-jokes and disconnected ramblings. You never know how many friends you will lose before ever seeing their faces.