Constructive internet dialogue, is it possible?
Years ago I read an article in New Scientist about road rage. A psychologist said part of the problem was people in cars are depersonalised. You don’t think of the other driver as a person, you think of them as a car. You can’t see their face, read their body language, hear their voice.
By contrast, if you bump into someone as you are walking down the street, there are all sorts of signals – from apologetic body language, to saying, “Sorry!” – that help to defuse the situation.
In a car, there’s none of that. The other driver doesn’t look like a real, breathing person, they look like an object in your way. Just you, and your irritation, feel real to you.
I’ve often thought something similar happens on the internet.
Once upon a time we thought the internet was a big shining hope. Wow, look at that, people from all over the world can talk to each other! Talking is good, so more talking is better, right? Let a new era of peace, love and human understanding reign!
OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But in the ’90s there was an optimism about what the internet could do for democracy and for humankind. That it could be a space for conversations that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen easily in real life. That people talking and sharing would naturally come to understand each other better.
But what do we actually see when we look around the internet? We see blowhards shouting at each other on newspaper comment threads and nobody listening, nobody learning anything, nobody understanding each other better. We see flame wars, trolling, polarisation.
Not to say there’s no constructive dialogue on the internet, but it often seems like the exception. Far more often a difference of opinion seems to spiral off into anger, insults and viciousness.
I think a big part of that is, a bit like with road rage, it’s much easier to be rude and unreasonable on the internet than it would be in real life. Words on a screen become a place to vent your frustrations. The other people you’re talking to don’t seem that real. With the added factor that it’s technically public – encouraging some to show off and posture for the imagined invisible audience.
I do see some constructive conversations. I see a lot more situations where constructive online conversations could be useful but aren’t happening – from people of different backgrounds falling out on twitter, to contested areas of science like GM. If we could work out what makes constructive conversations happen in one place, and not another, wouldn’t that be handy?
Maybe sometimes people just want to fall out and let off steam, and we shouldn’t worry too much twitter spats. But it would be useful to know – for democracy, for consultations, for civil society – how we can have public conversations online, about issues that matter, in constructive ways.
I’ve been asking people this question for a while now, and no-one seems to have any answers. We know some stuff about creating constructive dialogue in real life (and it’s still a lot harder than it looks), but I don’t know of any real research on online dialogue. And I speak as someone who’s spent ten years involved in running online dialogue events.
I’ve got some thoughts, and I think our events were usually pretty constructive, partly because of the way we set them up, which we developed by trial and error over the years. To be honest though, those events nearly all involved school students talking to either scientists, or local councillors. Which is a fairly specific situation. Not everything I’ve learned can be applied elsewhere.
For example, I can tell you that live chats tend to be more polite when the teacher is in the classroom. But, sadly, I can’t send a teacher round to look over the shoulder of every bitter misogynist about to take potshots at Mary Beard.
However, here are a few thoughts I’ve had:-
- I think an ongoing relationship makes a huge difference.
I’ve seen constructive conversations emerge online, even from fraught or snarky beginnings, when people have an ongoing relationship. Even if it’s just as twitter pals. Where people place some value on a continuing relationship, they are more likely to make an effort to acknowledge valid points, compromise and accommodate.
Whereas, of course, a drive-by commenter is like the car driver you’ll never see again. It’s easy to flick them metaphorical Vs and shout ‘WANKER!’ after their departing back.
It’s not practical to expect an ongoing relationship from all newspaper commenters or dialogue participants. But are there ways we can use this effect? Give people status within a community for constructive behaviour, a bit like stack overflow?
- I think photo avatars make a difference.
They remind us we’re talking to real human beings. Are there other little nudges we could use to humanise people?
- I think effective and proactive moderators or facilitators make a difference.
But that’s resource intensive. Communities can self-moderate, or have volunteer moderators, but I’m not sure I’d hold up reddit as a great example of a constructive online space…
- I think ground rules make a difference.
Other people must have more thoughts on this. I imagine there’s a great deal of tacit knowledge out there – in people like me, in online community managers, moderators and all sorts of forum administrators. I suspect there’s also many bits and pieces of relevant research in all sorts of disciplines – in psychology, in sociology, in IT, in politics – but no-one’s pulled all this stuff together.
So I’ve got some questions:-
- Does anyone know of any research on this? Do we know of ways that we can set up online spaces that make constructive conversations more likely? Is anyone actually studying it? Is anyone asking all the people I mentioned above what they know? And then is anyone putting this all together to try to design effective online dialogue spaces and testing them out?
- Even if there isn’t any research, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think makes some online conversations or spaces more constructive than others?
- If there isn’t any research (that we know of), does anyone want to fund me to do a PhD investigating this question? Because it seems like it would be a damn useful thing to find out.