The online world can feel like the saloon in an old Western, where even the mildest disagreement erupts into a verbal brawl. And it’s not “just words on a screen.” (More)

Online Civility Part I: Old Disputes in a New Frontier

This week Morning Feature considers Andrea Weckerle’s Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks. Today we look at the technical and cultural differences that make disputes more difficult to manage. Tomorrow we’ll see the categories of online disputes and various dispute styles. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to restore and maintain civility and minimize the damage of online disputes.

Andrea Weckerle earned her Juris Doctor at T.C. Williams School of Law, University of Richmond, as well as a Master’s in Public Relations/Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University. She designed and implemented dispute resolution programs for several Fortune 500 companies while at the professional services firm of Ernst & Young. She then opened her own consulting firm before founding CivilNation, a non-profit charity organization taking a stand against online hostility, character assassination and adult cyberbullying.

“They just want women to turn off their computers”

You’ve met someone nice and started a relationship. He’s out of town on business, and you miss him, so you use your cellphone camera to take some risqué photos of yourself and send them to him with a few teasing words added for spice. He calls that evening and you feel not so far apart. Ahh, the magic of love.

But a few months later you broke up, and the magic of love gives way to the darker art of online harassment as those risqué photos and maybe even recorded excerpts of your phone call end up on a “revenge porn” site. You could sue, but even if you win your ex couldn’t pay enough to compensate you for the pain and humiliation. You could go to the police, but they may not know how to handle the case, as Salon‘s Tracy Clark-Flory explains:

“Even if people aren’t afraid of being sued because they have nothing to lose, they are afraid of being convicted of a crime because that shows up on their record forever,” says Without My Consent co-founder Erica Johnstone. “A lot of times it’s the police and district attorneys that really have the leverage to stop this kind of behavior.”

But many don’t even realize it, says Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “There are laws that we could enforce,” she says. “They could be pursued, but cops don’t understand, they aren’t trained. They just want women to turn off their computers.”

“Easier to vilify an opponent or perceived enemy”

Angry exes existed long before the internet. So did the other personal, business, and political disputes that so often erupt online. As Weckerle notes, the internet exposes the same kinds of cliques, rivalries, envies, prejudices, snubs, rages, and resentments that have driven disagreements since the dawn of time. But, she writes:

Unlike in face-to-face interactions or conversations over the phone (where you can observe and respond to the reactions of those you communicate with and thus often create an emotional connection if only for a short time), the online environment’s frequent absence of paralinguistic, namely nonverbal cues make it easy to objectify others. This in turn makes it easier to vilify an opponent or perceived enemy.

It’s not simply a matter of anonymity or pseudonymity, although Weckerle notes that these can amplify the problem. It’s that people online can feel like “just words on a screen,” a phrase often used to belittle both online friendships and disputes. At some level we know we’re arguing with a real human being, or that real human beings work at the business we’re criticizing. But perceptual distance reduces empathy, making it harder to hold back ugly words and easier to lash out at an impersonal Other.

Public and Permanent

A private face-to-face or telephone conversation usually is private. It might be recorded – as were Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% comments and the Mitch McConnell campaign staff meeting discussion of smear tactics – but there are laws that govern such recordings. We also have cultural norms. If you’re arguing with a friend in your lawn, or a local business person in his or her office, you expect that the conversation will remain between the two of you. And if you can resolve the problem, the dispute ends. You may have hurt feelings for awhile after, or not, but the conversation passes into history.

But everything that happens online is or can be made public, not just within a small circle of acquaintances, but worldwide for the estimated two billion people who now have online access. Many online disputes begin in public fora, on websites or social media like Facebook or Twitter. Private emails and messages – or entire message logs – can be and often are forwarded to others. Even if you and the person you share a discussion with keep it private, hackers may still get at it.

What’s more, everything that happens online is or can be made permanent. You can delete a blog or a comment at your website, a Facebook status update or a tweet, but there are still digital records. Someone may have captured a screen shot of your Facebook update or tweet before you deleted it. The Wayback Machine may have already have archived your blog or comments. Your Internet Service Provider or the business you correspond with may store your emails, chat logs, and other activity.

Raising the Stakes

The publicity and permanence of online activity raises the stakes. A in-person complaint to the manager of a local pizza franchise usually involves only a few dollars and a few minutes. An online dispute with the same local franchise, over the same issue, might cost the parent company tens of thousands of dollars in lost business and linger for months as new people from across the country and around the world stumble across and revive the complaint.

And we return to that ex, who in bygone days might have gossiped to his buddies. They might have passed it along, if the details were juicy. If not, they probably nodded and listened and laughed and forgot about it by the next morning. But when he posts those photos online as revenge porn, the damage can be horrific. Your parents, children, friends, neighbors, or boss may get wind of it. Even if they sympathize with and support you, they’ve seen you in ways you never intended.

And they may not support you. Your pastor may decide you should leave the church. Your boss may decide you’ve sullied his reputation. Friends you trusted may decide you had it coming because you should never have taken those photos to begin with. And unless someone steps up to help, you may feel too humiliated to go on….

The internet may feel like “just words on a screen,” but publicity and permanence can make the damage as bad or worse. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the kinds of online disputes and the categories of online combatants.


Happy Thursday!