Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Online Etiquette - An Oxymoron?

For a long time, my boyfriend was a poster on a message board that had a fair share of "flamewars" (basically, huge pointless arguments). People would write the most horrible things to each other, curse each other out, and treat each other terribly. It really bothered me that he posted on the board at all, even though he refused to participate in the negativity, and he's since given up reading it altogether.

Initially, I figured that it was only on message boards like this one, which had a ton of type A aggressive types who seemed to enjoy one-upping each other and arguing, that people treated each other with such a lack of consideration. But based on the comments I've read on a lot of blogs and postings on some of the message boards that I read (like Makeup Alley) that appeal to a totally different demographic, it seems more and more like this is an Internet-wide problem.

Why is it that people are so, well, mean when they're online? Certainly, real-life manners are disappearing (see my post about common courtesies), but that can't explain everything, because people are acting in ways that they never would in real life. David Pogue of the New York Times recently discussed this in an excellent blog entry titled "Whatever Happened to Online Etiquette?", where he basically outlined the problems behind the breakdown of Internet courtesy. I'm going to discuss a few here, and add some of my own ideas:

Barriers make us a bit too brave. When you can hide behind an anonymous name, or even just a random Hotmail or Gmail address, it's very easy to abandon all sense of politeness or deference. In fact, why waste time being polite when you can word your argument as strongly as possible? It's pretty clear that message boards where people have to use their real name and register with a real e-mail address are far more civil and polite than most.

Spelling and grammar are out of style. I don't know if it's education, or just the widespread availability of spell check, that has made us such bad spellers and writers, but countless message board postings and blog comments are filled with obvious spelling and grammatical errors (don't even get me started on Myspace). I don't really mean to say that bad spelling is horrible in itself, but it's just another thing that has gone into decline as our forms of communication become more and more informal.

The Internet is taking its cue from real life. I don't mean to blame the Internet for the decline in etiquette- if anything, the Internet just reflects the way we behave in real life, but with the problems of anonymity and instant communication. More and more, people seem to care about making a quick point (just take a look at Fox News), or winning an argument at any cost, rather than respecting others and strengthening relationships.

In any case, it seems like just focusing on the decline in online etiquette might just be another outgrowth of how society is changing. Independence and having a strong will are great things, but more and more of us seem to be exclusively focused on ourselves (or a very small group of people), rather than on how we relate to others. Unless people begin to think more about how others will perceive their actions, it's likely that these problems will just continue to grow, and there will be no shortage of posts about the decline of online etiquette, and manners in general.

No comments: