One of the books that informed significantly my attitude to and expectations of the online environment, is William J. Mitchell’s City of Bits, published by MIT Press in 1996, a long time ago in Web years.
Hearing Bill speak about the book and its subject matter – ‘space, place and the infobahn’ – helped me to see the Internet not so much as an electronic phenomenon, much as it is indubitably and forever that, but more as an enabler of new communities and new interactions between people. A city of bits indeed. And one of the things you have in a city is conversations that are more or less ‘civil’, i.e. conversations conducted in a way which is more or less appropriate as between citizens or ‘civilised’ people.
One of the big differences between conversations in the City of Bits and those in a traditional ‘city’ is that these new conversations are regularly between people who have never met in the flesh, and may never meet in that way. So typed or even spoken conversation does not carry the clues of body language, the connotations of past, more direct experience of people who have at some time been in the same physical location. We are often challenged in our efforts to understand or infer the intent or emotional weighting of what is being communicated. And sometimes we get it wrong. Which can lead to confusion, misunderstanding and even hostility between people who, in an analogue city may have been able to get on famously together.
We all have to learn new ways of accommodating the limitations of the online conversational environment, so that we can benefit from the decided advantages we get from this environment, unconstrained as it is by limitations of distance, or even time.
Diane Ensey has a thoughtful essay Bring Back Civil Conversation on her VA Journal (that’s VA as in virtual assistant). She points out very usefully that being civil in conversation does not mean agreeing with everything someone else says.
Too much and not enough is read into conversation – both those in person and those on forums, mailing lists and blogs. Too much in that every word is assumed by the hearer to be a complete representation of the speaker. Too little in that it is assumed that the words of a speaker or writer mean what the listener or reader think they mean.
That doesn’t mean we have to pussyfoot around – far from it, as Diane argues persuasively.
And indeed a vigorous civil conversation, as in the offline world, may be a quite healthy contribution to our various groups and societies, for example by working through a quite serious disagreement to possibly find new levels of understanding and mutual respect, whether or not agreement is part of the resolution of the conversation.