March 20, 2012
On Interacting with People Online
A recent blog post by Puffles’ bestest buddy motivated me to put down my own principles of online social behaviour – mostly because Bestest Buddy’s approach is very similar to my own. I’ve also been thinking about these issues after reading a recent post by pme200. (If you are on Twitter, you should follow both.) I have decided to publish these reflections on my work blog because I have been thinking about using social media for research, and I use social media to promote good scholarship and science (in addition to my own work, which may or may not be up to scratch …)
I am interested in how people approach the koan of life – What is a good life? What is our place in this world? How can I muddle through from day to day? The best way of finding that out is to listen carefully. I almost wrote “non-judgmentally”, but of course I have principles I live by, and I have opinions on what I see on- and offline. Still, I find the best way to keep an open mind is to communicate with people with many different views and opinions. I am also aware that many of the people who upset me the most are people who openly display personality traits and attitudes that I am afraid of seeing in myself. In other words, when I see my own shadow, when I see what I could be if I don’t watch out, I recoil.
I interact with people who are open atheists and people who are creationists, with ardent alt-med skeptics and people who happily use chiropractic and naturopathic medicine, with socialists and conservative libertarians, and I enjoy this mix. For the record, I am deeply religious, with liberal Catholic / Quaker views, strongly favour a good social security net, and support evidence-based medicine, with more time for practitioners and patients to establish a strong personal rapport.
When I express my opinions online, I always try not to cause undue offence. This is relatively easy because my audience is the diverse group of people I talk to, and I do my best to keep the people who might be offended in mind when deciding what to post and how to phrase it. Sometimes, people tell me that they are put off by something I post. This usually happens when I haven’t quite thought the post/tweet/status update through properly, and did not frame it well. We talk about what it was that offended them, and I can take their point on board, understand their reactions, and sharpen my own thinking. A few times, this approach has led me to change strongly held views, and I am always happy to apologise for offence I caused inadvertently.
I also keep a relatively tightly locked online space under a pseudonym which I have been using for more than a decade in various forms which I use for support, more personal reflections (AKA relentless whining) and to stay in touch with close friends. My rules of behaviour are similar for my real name identity and for my pseudonym, but under my pseudonym, I am both a bit more open about my own views, and a bit more sensitive to my online friends’ views than I am under my real name.
I greatly value politeness and manners. I’ve been extending my comfort zone recently because I started posting on a forum where the overall tone is rougher than what I am used to.
As a result of this policy, which I’ve developed through trial and error during my 18 years online (I got my first e-mail address in 1994, fact fans), I’ve had relatively little trouble with trolls and internet hate. This is good, because my single biggest weakness is that I am extremely sensitive to trolling. In fact, I am so sensitive to trolls that I am not just suspicious of people who have trolled me in the past – I am also suspicious of people who are friends with said trolls. I’ve observed that trolls tend to hang out with other who have similar manners (or lack thereof), I am wary of trolls getting their bile green warty hands on private information, and seeing the names of certain trolls retweeted into my timeline gives me a small nasty jolt (see above, single biggest weakness).
I should add that my definition of troll is somebody who has trolled others online, irrespective of their offline or other online behaviour. In fact, it is perfectly possible that one and the same person behaves like a vicious troll towards some people, and like a wonderful, steadfast friend towards others. Everybody is capable of trolling, harassment, and vile behaviour; trolls are people who act this out in public.
My other weakness (paradoxically) is that I am actually quite an irascible person, and when I’m particularly low and vulnerable, I’m not quite as polite and well-reasoned as I should be. I’ve been reined in a couple of times over the past decade by friends when I overshot the mark online, and I am very grateful to them (you know who you are!).
Having followed the anonymity / pseudonymity discussion for a while, and having both an open and a pseudonymous identity, I have strong views on the matter. For example, I like the idea that pseudonym identities aren’t judged based on their position in life, but on the quality of their output. The much-missed Revere epidemiology blogger(s) wrote a great post about that idea. I don’t think attacking people from behind a pseudonym is cowardly – if that pseudonym is the person’s online identity. It would be cowardly to be sweetness and light under one’s own name and a total pain in the neck under another handle.
At the end of the day, be consistent and be true to yourself – as long as you don’t commit a crime in the process, or cause substantial damage and pain to another person, that’s all that matters, and you will find people online who are willing to interact with you and accept you the way you are. That’s the horror and the beauty of the Internet.