Public spaces are expanding.  The group of people within our reach is approaching universality, and the way we reached them has changed.  You’d never respond to a stranger you overheard in a coffee shop. Nor would you stand up and give your opinion in the middle of grocery store.  Now we regularly do both, online, in every grocery store and coffee shop and house at once. I’m doing it right now. All those people at the store, though physically close, are in a different sort of public space than those far away.  We are bound by rules of decorum to pretend we don’t hear them and not to bother them with our political views or relationship troubles or stories about our kids. When we do interact, it is always in pleasantries, to lend a hand or make brief conversation or politely move them out of the way.  Online, no such rules apply. We shout and fight and argue as much as we congratulate and support and praise. The internet was designed in that libertarian spirit. Anything goes.

When thinking about content, that’s a good thing.  The World Wide Web was built as platform where anyone could build a website to publish whatever they wanted in the ultimate means of free expression, which would be available to anyone.  Websites were envisioned as discrete objects, like newspapers anyone could create, and you will find that allusions to paper and writing abound in the terms we use for the internet. We “browse” “pages,” “post” on “message boards,” “publish” blogs, and exchange electronic-“mail” and “texts.”  

The defining features of writing are that it is static and permanent.  Unlike speech, which is lost the moment it is uttered, once a message is written down it won’t change no matter how many times you reference it, unless someone destroys or modifies it.  It’s also silent. You can read a message, but you can’t question it. You can disagree with a book, you can yell at it if you want, but it won’t argue back with you beyond what’s already on the page.  Therefore, it’s not necessary to treat a piece of text with respect. There’s never been a need for rules on reading politely. Hate a book, tear out its pages, throw it down, burn it; the book doesn’t care.  It’s not changing its mind. Unless you know the author, they’ll never know you either. At best you could write your own book or letter or article in response, a slow and painful process, an exception rather than the rule.

The internet hasn’t stayed a catalogue of distinct pages.  Those still exist, out on the fringes of our Google searches, but the core of the internet has merged into the large social spaces of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., through which most of our time and traffic flow, and where everyone can interact with everyone else directly.  Even on the periphery, comment sections provide the same function (and are often tied to the social networks). Unlike a book or newspaper, you can yell at a facebook post or news article or tweet and expect the author (or someone else) to respond. They can yell back, get upset, be hurt, or approve, praise, correct, and challenge.  It might lead to a long conversation. On a popular article, the comment section might be a thousand times wordier than the article itself. Knowing this necessarily changes the way we write and respond to writing online. We can’t help writing things in order to get responses. Facebook and online editors encourage it, but that’s not necessary.  No one tells a joke they don’t think will get laughs.

There subtler effects as well.  Information presented in an online forum does not experience the same pressure as a book to be complete because more information can and will be added to it by others.  An argument does not have the same need to predict and answer counterarguments because those can be raised and answered in the comments if needed. Just as when arguing with a friend, you don’t speak for 30 minutes uninterrupted so that you can address all your friend’s concerns in advance,  You present your side and let him respond. Online, we argue with all of our friends at once, so there is little surprise that much of our thoughts take the form of unexamined opinions presented as facts. Like in an oral argument, the cross-examination must come after the case has been presented.  The problem comes when we treat them like texts, where every thought written down is final (at least until the next book), and therefore fail to take the time to engage with the response and change our thinking in accordance. Too often we present our sides, along with their arguments and corresponding facts, and try to pick a winner, but we don’t take the extra step of refining our thoughts in an ongoing discussion.

If you enjoy a book, no response is required.  You simply consume it. Only when you disagree or are offended or angered do you begin to formulate a response.  To enjoy a conversation, however, is to engage in it, to put effort into keeping it going. You may press “like” for a photo or post, maybe leave a quick affirmation, but you can’t “dislike” a post; for that you have to leave a comment, and you are much more likely to do so when you disagree strongly or are very upset or have something you believe absolutely must be added.  Two people agreeing quickly move on to other topics, but two people arguing a single point can talk all night. Online, we always argue over one topic at a time, so the conversation is always biased in favor of disagreement. The structure of our software and the nature of writing—the way it is broken up into discrete units—leads us to believe we are writing to someone rather than conversing with them.  

When we read, we don’t have to worry about the author.  The text must speak for itself, and we can only respond to the text, not the author.  We may form an opinion of him, but unless he reads our angry Amazon review, he’ll never have to worry about us, either.  Online, the author might not intend for a post to address any person specifically, but we all read the post personally and can personally respond.  A saying that wouldn’t offend anyone the author knows in person might offend someone online, and you can bet the author will hear about it from them.   A joke that was funny when told to friends at a party might fall flat (or worse) online. Or a joke that was posted specifically for friends might be read by strangers and interpreted in a way you never intended.  It’s notoriously difficult to tell when someone is joking in writing. Some people have a hard enough time detecting sarcasm in person.

We haven’t learned to read as though we were talking to a person rather than a page on a screen.  Deciphering speech when it is written is difficult because so much of our meaning in tied up in body language, tone, and timing, none of which comes through on facebook.  Emojis are a crude replacement. We can’t know when someone is laughing or snarling as they post, whether they are angry or bemused, crying or fuming. If we know the author we may have an idea, but when we don’t know anything other than the words, we are left to guess, and we naturally impute our own fears and feelings onto the author.  It becomes easy to read everything in the worst possible way, because of our own self-centeredness and insecurity in dealing with those we love, and the convenience and self-righteousness of believing the worst in those we hate. Online, there is very little to push back against those impulses.

The more public space expands, the more people within our reach, the larger the shared network, the more we will experience these structural difficulties.  A growing body of words laments our present polarization, incivility, and lack of public trust. Most solutions take some form of either “get offline” or “regulate technology.”  But while our technology can be better and we should spend time in real communities, the present disarray is neither inevitable nor permanent. We live in a time of transition where all the old rules that enforced the civil order no longer apply.  We need new rules to guide our online discourse if we are ever to restore sanity, understanding, and civility to our public spaces. Allow me to suggest a few.

Rule 1: Selective Privacy.  We abide by this everyday IRL.  Anywhere you go where other people are present, you will hear them talking, but you never insert yourself into those conversations.  You might hear someone say something offensive, but you don’t immediately begin to berate them for it. You might hear someone say something in support of Hillary, but you don’t start shouting “Lock her up!” in their face.  Whatever you may think of them or their comments, you pretend you didn’t hear them and continue on your way. You grant the person the benefit of privacy, even though they are technically in a public space, because you recognize their conversation was not intended for you.  Imagine how insufferable going outside would be if everything you said or did became the subject of intense discussion and/or harassment from everyone around you. Going online shouldn’t be like that, either. If a post wasn’t addressed directly at you or written by someone you know, just ignore it, no matter how upsetting, unless you have something truly helpful or constructive to add.

Rule 2: Good faith.  In public, it’s easy to tell when someone is talking to or about you or about events in their own lives or addressing a third party or a general audience.  However, reading is (usually) a solitary activity that occurs wholly within our own minds, so it’s hard not to take everything you read in a more personal way through the lens of how it affects you and your situation.  That’s a good thing when considering the topics and questions and dilemmas present in literature. When talking to someone it is a recipe for suspicion and anxiety. As a passive aggressive person, it is hard not to assume there are hidden messages and agendas in people’s comments (especially when I can’t see their body language and hear their tone), but it’s unfair to assume that people intended to target or hurt or manipulate, or even that their words had anything to do with me at all.  If there is to be any trust or progress online, we have to believe that people are speaking in good faith, out of their own situation, from their own understanding, as best they are able. Someone may happen to be wrong or hurtful, as we all are at times, but there is no reason initially to take it as intentional or personal, particularly if it is someone you don’t know.

Rule 3: Generous Reading.  If we shouldn’t take everything personally, nor should we take everything negatively.  We’ve probably all been in that struggling relationship where everything you say, even the most innocuous comment, is misinterpreted by your partner in the worst possible light, to the point where you can’t talk at all without starting an argument.  Yeah, online is like that right now. To have a healthy relationship with others online we need to be generous in the assumptions we make about people and their messages, or at least acknowledge that we don’t know the manner in which they wrote or the circumstances surrounding it or the what they intended to convey.  As a rule (and this is true in relationships as well), don’t ever get mad at the first thing someone says. Reserve your judgement until you have given them time to explain themselves. Engage in a conversation rather than a fight.

Rule 4: Provisional Thoughts.   Since writing is static and permanent, it gives the impression that what is written is therefore complete and final.  You can go back and read a tweet or post from years ago and it will still say the same thing it said then. It will still sound like the present.  However, it would be wrong to think, therefore, that it still reflects the current thoughts of the person who wrote it. They may well have changed their mind even if they don’t go back and change all of their tweets.  One of the beauties of writing is that it can be saved and referenced forever, but that is more harmful than helpful if we do not put the past into proper context. Never assume that any statement, past or present, is the final word on a person’s thinking.  We’re encouraged to throw out whatever we happen to be thinking or doing or eating at the moment, whether we are distraught or confused or angry or drunk, as we would in a conversation. You wouldn’t judge an adult for a off-hand remark they made as a child, nor for an opinion they once held but no longer did.  You wouldn’t think, if you heard someone give an opinion, that they would never be able to change it. Don’t read people that way, either.

Maybe you think these rules are obvious.  Treat people with respect. Show compassion and understanding.  Don’t make hasty assumptions. Be slow to anger. Of course they are.  The world would be a much better place if we all did what we know if right.  But we don’t. We have to learn to live well and practice doing good. We are still discovering how to understand and behave in this new space where we all live and work and play and shop and share and interact.  This is just a start to thinking how we should do it. If you have any ideas for more rules to follow, please share them below. I won’t judge you on them, I promise. At least, I’ll try.

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