April 30th, 2006

ozarque figure

How to disagree online without being disagreeable; part 2...

At the end of part 1 of this post I said, "It seems to me that perhaps the greatest challenge in online disagreements is figuring out whether the person you're disagreeing with is being disagreeable -- hostile -- or not." How, without tone of voice, without intonation, without all the rest of the bodyparl, do you know?

It's easy to say, "Oh, well ... when somebody posts a comment telling you that what you've just posted is the stupidest and most ignorant thing they've ever read, it doesn't take a giant intellect to recognize that it's hostile." However, in face to face communication I could say, "What you just said is the stupidest and most ignorant thing I've ever heard," or any other insulting sequence you care to propose, and say it in such a way that the majority of native speakers of English would know I didn't mean it and would know that I really wasn't being hostile. [I say "the majority of native speakers of English" because I know that some of you find it difficult to get emotional messages from body language.] Can that be done online? Can you just fling an emoticon in there and accomplish the same thing? I don't know.

I often can't tell whether you are being disagreeable at me when you comment on something in this journal; I've mistaken neutral posts for hostile ones, and hostile ones for neutral ones, a number of times. And you've been patient about that, for the most part, and willing to explore the question with me -- but without exploring it I would never have been certain whether there was hostility involved or not. I don't think that the words alone provide enough information.

But perhaps that's wrong. Perhaps there's an actual grammar of Online Hostile English out there to be discovered; if there is, finding and analyzing that grammar would be a useful thing to do. [Remember our discussion of the written discourse marker "Umm... " Some of you said it was always mildly hostile; some of you didn't think so; some of you were amazed that there could be any question about it, since "everybody knows" what it means to start an online sequence with "Umm.."]

Serendipitously, when my May/June 2006 issue of Books & Culture arrived yesterday, there was Alan Jacobs on pp. 36-37 (in "Goodbye, Blog") talking about the blogosphere. And saying:

"I think first of the extraordinary anger that seems to be more present in the blogosphere than in everyday life. Debate after debate -- on almost every site I visit, including the ones devoted to Christianity -- either escalates from rational discourse into sneering and name-calling or just bypasses reason altogether and starts with the abuse." (on page 36)

I haven't seen that here; there are occasional flurries of annoyance, and I know that I sometimes get crochety, but I don't see anything that I would call "extraordinary anger" or that I would perceive as anger "more present than in everyday life." I've seen only one post in all this time that bypassed reason altogether and started with the abuse, and that one was obviously from a passing troll. Alan Jacobs is an English professor and author and intellectual, and it's hard for me to imagine that the blogs he visits are teenage slugfest sites or anything of that kind. Which makes me wonder whether he is "hearing" anger that isn't really there -- anger that isn't the emotional message that was intended. How do we know? What makes it possible to hear the emotional message accurately?

Also from Jacobs:

"And then there are the 'trolls': people who comment specifically in order to get a rise out of other commenters -- people who have never transcended the discovery that being extremely annoying is one of the most reliable ways of getting attention. Most of us, by third grade or so, come to understand that hostile attention is probably worse than no attention at all, but trolls never learn to make such subtle discriminations. Thus no law of the blogosphere is more important -- though also more widely ignored -- than 'Don't feed the trolls.' " (on pp.36-37)

I think that perhaps Jacobs is overestimating the numbers when he says "most of us, by third grade or so." I think there are more people than he realizes that are so desperate for human attention that they prefer the hostile variety to none at all. What's amazing -- to someone my age -- is that online hostile attention is real enough to them to be satisfying. Or perhaps they are "hearing creatively." Perhaps they're hearing emotional messages that aren't really there?