For some reason, the subject of incivility and cruel behavior in social media sites fascinates me. I think it does say quite a bit about human behavior and what happens when you change social interactions in a radical way, very, very quickly. At the risk of sounding too much like an evolutionary psychologist, it seems that once you remove the closeness, the in-the-flesh interactions that we evolved to need and that are necessary for thriving as a member of our species, many aspects of our behavior go completely out of whack. And to reverse-paraphrase Steven Pinker, the "better angels" of our nature get totally beat up by the "worse demons" of our nature. It certainly seems that empathy and inclusiveness get trampled by cruelty and tribalism.
At the same time, social media allow for many good causes that appeal to the "better angels" of our nature, to actually exist and be effective, such as relief for natural disasters victims, campaigns pro-human rights, etc. I'm not trying to say social media is the bane of civilization. I do enjoy interacting with people through social media very much, and I find it an enriching experience because I can "meet" people from all over the world and learn their perspectives.
Perhaps the problem lies in lack of "policing" as in "social policing." What I mean by that is the kind of community effect that comes from knowing that other people are watching (and judging) our behavior, the kind of phenomenon described by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect, that anonymity stimulates destructive behavior. Many social networking sites do not moderate very effectively or moderate too late, once the interactions have escalated in intensity and nastiness.
I was prompted to write this discussion because of an article about meanness or extreme rudeness on Twitter (you should read it, it has gossip galore), and I want to have your opinions or thoughts on this important issue. The article says that perhaps the same ferocious incivility was happening but we just could not see it because it wasn't so hugely public. At the same time, the article compares online incivility to road rage, a case of rational people behaving irrationally. It's possible. Here are some excerpts I thought interesting:
But Reynol Junco, a psychologist and social media researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, believes the Twitter haters have it all wrong. In a phone interview, he called the idea of blaming social media for incivility “absurd,” and he pointed to Twitter’s prominent role in the last election as evidence that social media actually improves civic engagement. “A lot of this is about perception,” he said. “People assume that because we couldn’t see all this incivility before Twitter that it wasn’t happening, but these exchanges are reflective of conversations that are happening in the real world.”
And on the subject of social conventions and self-regulation as a community, perhaps shunning the offenders (the oldest form for human communities to punish transgressors, cheaters, etc.) is simply going to transfer from the real world into the online world, and that will solve the issue:
In fact, according to Weber Shandwick’s study, more than half of Americans say they are “tuning out” media because of what they consider uncivil commentary. (Are you paying attention, Rupert?) That same study also suggests that incivility on Twitter, in the long term, may be equally shunned. Half of Americans now say they have de-friended or blocked someone online because of incivility, while more than a quarter have dropped out of an online community completely. Junco cautioned that “trolls are just a part of the Internet space,” but he added that new technologies like social media should never be discounted simply because people have figured out ways to abuse them. He cites Carl Sagan, who famously believed that humans will one day venture to the stars -- that is, if we don’t kill each other first.