One thing I have been noticing lately: a good post on this blog will receive two to three comments. But (and that’s new) I will get between five to ten emails following up on what I wrote. Is good conversation moving away from public viewing? So it seems!
Harassment, ignorance, anonymity, spam, all these have taken their toll on online discussion. Some bloggers even stopped writing because of it. We don’t need to reach extremes to make these weight on the general attitude. An opinion expressed online exposes us to more violent answers than in real life. It is much easier to slap me while seating on a desk on the other side of the planet – separated from my 100 kilos by a screen and a few well guarded borders 😉 – than to speak your mind in person. This disintermediation makes it more easy to go beyond the limits, as to feel like words have less consequences than they really do.
And despite what we have been hearing, every piece of information created on the web does not necessarily call for additions or follow ups. I asked a couple of times “can I republish your email online to make the blog’s conversation more complete”, only to get a “not really, it was not meant to start a discussion with anybody else than you”. Totally understandable. Why would we always want our contributions to be exposed and amended by the world? We take it for granted now, like it is a virtue to allow discussion, but why not consider the opposite – contributions that their author wants to be in their final form – also acceptable?
Now that everybody is on the web (and that Google finds everything) freedom of speech is slightly restricted. That is if you use your real identity of course. If you think your boss could read the particular post you want to comment on, you will think twice before making your point. Blogs are typically federating homogeneous communities around them, people with the same interest, and it’s a small world we are living in.
Last but not least: online might not be well suited for discussion after all. Despite free video chat and twitter accounts, people have never been that mobile, moving around to experience mostly one thing: the real conversation. The one interaction where you can rely on all the stimuli we lose with technology: body language, eye contact, voice tone, what current technologies can hardly replicate, making almost all online interactions very partial, exposing us to misinterpreting messages 50% of the time. This reason does not really apply to the case I am talking about – as email (online) replaces comments (also online) – but it is somehow relevant. An email is more personal, certainly richer and more engaging than a few lines at the bottom of a post.
We certainly haven’t found a more efficient answer to bullies and trolls than disappearance, taking conversations private to stop exposing them. It is both understandable and a shame, much value getting confined in emails while it could become searchable. We need more solutions to make online conversation more civilized, while keeping the liberty of tone, diversity and genuineness that characterized the early days of the web.