Say That to My Face?

(forum.xda-developers.com)

(img: forum.xda-developers.com)

A common concern of Digital Citizenship and online bullying is that many people view the “culture of the Internet” as one riddled with negativity and behavior that’s anti-social (if not outright sociopathic). The trolls and “lowest-common-denominator” debates that run below your favorite news site or online magazine scare away many teachers from using online publishing, forums or discussion boards in class. Why is it that behavior norms are so different online? An interesting structure came through this morning from 99U: “Born Hatin': Why Some People Dislike Everything.”

Psychologist John Suler proposed what is perhaps the best known analysis of the phenomenon in the Online Disinhibition Effect. It lists six primary factors as to why we may treat others differently online than we do in person:

  1. You don’t know me. Anonymity protects the critics “real life” reputation and shields them from retaliation and owning their actions.
  2. You can’t see me. Face-to-face interactions tend to have more empathy because we can see the person we are engaging with. It’s hard to feel ashamed when you don’t even know who’s affected. You’re just a screen to me, not a person.
  3. See you later. I don’t have to deal with your instant response, or even wait for it! I can dump my thoughts on you and never return.
  4. It’s all in my head. Suler argues that online interactions can distort reality. I can make up whatever attributes about you that I want, justifying my actions.
  5. It’s just a game. The overused response of critics who do sometimes get called out: “It’s just the Internet, man!”
  6. Your rules don’t apply here. This is the internet, where closing out a live chat isn’t rude, despite the fact that leaving in the middle of a conversation would be rude in real life.

Being able to lay these out for students could open up lots of interesting ways to engage with the norms of digital culture– role-playing, for example, or acting out example comment threads could be a great way to confront the gap between online speaker and listener (albeit a bit dangerous– manage this activity carefully). Using imagery or posters to create responses or counter-arguments to these points could form the basis of a school digital citizenship campaign.

These rules aren’t just about being online, though– I see some of these in play on a regular basis in the interactions between bike commuters/cyclists and drivers, for example (which got a great treatment in this Norwegian public safety video). Furthermore, the article presents this theory in context of a larger finding: some people are inherently “likers,” who are more inclined to respond positively to new ideas, while some are inherently “haters” who will find a reason to rate things negatively. “It paints a very clear picture: no matter what you create, a small group of people will hate it, often without reason.” This is another, equally important lesson at the root of all culture and society, digital or face-to-face: You manage your own behavior, and accept that you can’t be responsible for how some people act. The balance is to accept meaningful, productive or informed critique while recognizing and discarding the trolls and haters.

Do Suler’s six factors translate to your observations or experience with online publishing and discussion? Can you see a way in which you might want to use these as a coaching tool with your students? How do you coach giving and receiving online feedback? Join in the comments below!

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