Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | January 4, 2010 10:46 am

In just two weeks, I’m looking forward to participating in a discussion at ScienceOnline ’10 with two of my favorite science bloggers: Janet and Isis. Our panel–as the title of this post suggests–is “Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents.” As you can imagine, the session outta be good! Over the weekend, we chatted about the plan–and that’s where you come in…

Janet has posted the following terrific questions over at her place, and I encourage readers to read through them while thinking about the meaning of online ‘civility‘. We invite you to contribute with your perspective in comments below or at the ScienceOnline’10 wiki.

– Is there some special problem of online civility (vs. offline civility)?

  • Is being civil online essentially the same as being civil in offline engagements (whether dialogues, debates, street fights, more unidirectional communications, or interactions not primarily aimed at communication)?
  • Is being civil online fundamentally different than being civil in offline engagements? (If so, why? How?)
  • Is being civil online different from being civil online, but only in degree? (Again, if so, why? How?)

– To the extent that online communities and venues for interaction reproduce the norms* off offline communities and venues for interaction in terms of expectations for civility and politeness (including agreed upon definitions of “civility” and “politeness”), is this a good thing or a bad thing? (For whom?)

*Here “norms” means “what people in the community recognize they ought to do, or not to do” rather than “whatever most people actually do”. (This is a distinction we’ve discussed before.)

That last question, of course, opens up the tempting and possibly-related subject of online spaces as an opportunity to remake the offline world. In such a project of making a new world, different people are bound to have different desiderata, at least some of them related to their different experiences of the offline world.

Which is to say, asking a question about what we think counts as civil or uncivil online is bound to prompt a response along the lines of “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?” (I first heard this question on a Bill Cosby comedy LP, but at the moment the Google-fu required to nail down which one to give a proper attribution is failing me.)

– What do we mean by “we” in these discussion of online civility?

– What does it mean to be “on the same team,” or members of the same “community,” at least from the point of view of feeling like we’re entitled to expect a certain level of regard or kind of treatment from each other?

– What are the prospects for successful coalition building across fairly significant differences (which might include differences in preferred level of “politeness” or “civility”)?

– What are the prospects for successful coalition building when the differences include not respecting other people’s feelings and/or prioritizing one’s own insulation against feeling bad above everything else?

– Are calls to be civil, discussions of tone, etc., primarily about hurt feelings? Is casting them this way dismissive, marginalizing, and/or factually incorrect?

– Are there particular issues for which you have no realistic expectation that it’s possible to discuss them civilly (either online, offline, or both)? What are they, and why do you think discussing them civilly is so frackin’ hard?


Comments (16)

  1. People once talked about the Balkanization of the Internet to describe the phenomenon where people only interact with those who speak the same language, hold the same prejudicial opinions, fight the same enemies. In the process, the core beliefs of the group are re-enforced and those who question those beliefs are rapidly chastised. Being online only makes it easier since you don’t have to walk out your door and look the “idiot” who you “soundly took to task” in the face tomorrow.

    In the online communities we see that the only way to gain acceptance is to closely adhere to the beliefs of the group, to fight vigorously against all challenges to those beliefs and those who do so with the most passion frequently become the leader of the pack.

    Living where I now do, I used to have a neighbor who refused to allow the discussion of religion or politics to enter the conversation. That was his way of remaining on good terms with everyone.

    If anyone doubts this, just try, as I have done, to post on DailyKos as a self-identified member of the Green Party. As much as Markos Zúniga talks about open discussion, his followers are quick to unload venom. Alternatively, post something on any Conservative Political blog that supports AGW and duck quickly. Like my neighbor, I have no expectation that politics and religion will ever be free from uncivil behavior and whenever science challenges beliefs in either area, science will receive the same verbal mugging.

    While the list of questions presented is intended to generate ideas, I would prefer to see it include an attempt to define why people will act online in a manner that they would not do if sitting comfortably in one’s living room.

  2. Randy Olson

    There’s a perfect article by Stephen Marche in this month’s Esquire that pretty much sums it up, titled, “Is ‘American Idol,” holding America together?” Here’s a great excerpt: “To fill the vacuum left by knowledgeable arbiters of taste, we have a flurry of mostly meaningless online reviews. Everything is either shit or sunshine on the internet. A decade ago the first comment posted on an article I wrote was, “yer a faggot,” and the tone hasn’t improved much over time. The blind positivity is even worse than the insults. A recent survey of six hundred online companies found that their user ratings averaged 4.3 out of 5. All I can say is that most orgasms don’t rate a 4.3 out of 5. We’re all critics now and partly because of shows like, ‘Top Chef,’ and ‘American Idol,’ we can talk like them, too. Have you ever found yourself describing a singer’s voice as ‘pitchy’? Has your wife ever commented on a dish’s ‘flavor profile’? You can thank the judges for that.”

  3. moptop

    “Alternatively, post something on any Conservative Political blog that supports AGW and duck quickly.”

    You might do better to deconstruct their arguments in hopes of making a few converts among the readers, if not your opponent. If that is too much work, it calls in to question whether you really think the world is ending. Instead, I am betting you slink away, or use the Modus Lefty method of argument, which goes like this

    -Rhetorical Proof (usually in the form of a rhetorical question)

    I think that you need only to look at the polling numbers re AGW, for one, to understand that the name calling, motive questioning, and attempts at ridicule aren’t working.

  4. gillt

    I worked for a newspaper as a staff writer and read hundreds of letters to the editor kept in a filing cabinet, sorted by date. The incoherence and triviality, and plain insanity, in the majority of those letters is identical to the comment section of this blog (and many others) and at roughly the same ratio.

    Online vs offline civility is a poorly conceptualized distinction. Communication falls along n interpersonal continuum.

  5. V.O.R.

    “I would prefer to see it include an attempt to define why people will act online in a manner that they would not do if sitting comfortably in one’s living room.”

    I believe what you discussed – Balkanization – is the key reason for that. It leads to the idea that the people you’re arguing with are evil, stupid, or crazy. It’s very easy to be uncivil to someone who’s evil, stupid, or crazy.

    I think something similar to Balkanization takes place within individual arguments, btw. Where much of the problem with Balkanization is different and/or highly, ah, “idiosyncratic” sources of information, I see people “blowing off” others points or questions far more online than off. There’s a term for it, but my vocabulary isn’t up to it today: Just call it “arguing in bad faith.”

    Where Balkanization gives you with people with completely different sets of facts, arguing in bad faith leaves you with people refusing to acknowledge different ideas even when confronted with them.

    I don’t think this stems from a problem with online discussions so much as it comes from loosing one of the strengths of face to face discussions: If you raise a point face-to-face it’s easy to make sure it’s dealt with before allowing the discussion to move on. Perhaps even non-verbally, with a frown, a raised finger, or a blow to the jaw.

    So obviously insisting that a point is dealt with can cause it’s own problems, but in my experience the ignoring of pertinent points online is a far more wide-spread problem than stubbornness in offline discussions.

    And I’m not sure just what’s going on in people’s heads when they blow-off points, but it certainly *seems* extremely uncivil to me. And reactions against bad faith – real or not – can easily seem very uncivil.

    Lets take it to the logical extreme: Lets say there’s a post in a “hot” discussion full of pertinent facts and contains an air-tight argument invalidating one of the “sides” ideas.
    Obviously what *should* happen is that one “side” says. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I was wrong. Lets move on to something else, eh?”

    I’m pretty sure that however rare a post with an “air-tight argument” is, such reactions to them are far, far more rare. Why?

    Well, anyone who does have that reaction won’t necessarily post it. Quite possibly they’ve just moved on to something else.

    Those well entrenched in opposition to the “air-tight” post are likely to be “defensive” at this point, unwilling to admit mistake for emotional reasons. In a “real life” group discussion I think facial expressions often signal when it’s a lost cause: A disputant sees that the “group” accepts his opponent’s argument. Doesn’t happen online. Due to Balkanization, in fact, “You’re evil, stupid, or crazy.” is more likely.

    One side of an argument may be evil, stupid, or crazy.
    Seriously, though: I suspect most arguments don’t contain two sides with an imperfect command of the facts and a desire to reach consensus or the truth. Or even one side with a good command of the facts and another side that’s simply mistaken and willing to learn. What I think is most common is one side with a decent command of the facts and one side that, if it was willing to learn in the first place, would have already done so.

    I guess the fundamental point is that most people aren’t very good at debate or discussion, and some people just want to vent. Moving things online, where non-verbal cues are lost, crazies can congregate, and discussions are often more complicated (more participants, more points raised at once, multiple-threads) makes it even worse.

    This lends itself to defensiveness, frustration, and thus uncivil behavior.

    So, to actually address the questions Sheril listed (Did I say anything about the problems caused by people with just too much free time? Maybe later.): I don’t think there’s any fundamental differences between what is or isn’t civil online. What’s different is the nature of discussion online. That different nature makes civility more difficult to achieve.

  6. Kirk

    The classic example is “The Gossage—Vardebedian Papers” by Woody Allen.

    This is not about the OPINION or STANCE of the actors.

    1. you can write dense&long or dense&short positions on a topic (or multiple topics) before the other person responds. Unless you regularly participate in formal debate, this is a strange way to communicate.

    2. neither side gets any non-verbal feedback. It’s easy to misunderstand even clear, precise text.

  7. jope

    With regards to #5, here’s one sharply contrasting account:

    One of his secondary observations is that there has been a shift in the average civility of letter-writers now versus pre-Internets. The crazies have always been there, but previously had a more limited number of outlets and with a general lack of a feedback mechanism. I’m curious whether their ranks have actually grown, or whether they’re simply more prolific now. Likely a little of both, but I’ve yet to see anyone drill down on that distinction.

  8. I know when gamers are online, for instance, some individuals are very rude; others don’t say anything sometimes, and people like myself talk just as much in offline activities. However, I carry a sense of ethics into this unlimited web of communication. I f I don’t agree with something online, like for instance, the Norway Sky Spiral that was seen by everyone and their brother, over the internet on the 10 of Dec. 2009, I share the same distain for the offical story as in my offline conversations. It seems when dealing with online communication, content, and communities, we just don’t really know what to expect.

  9. SLC

    Hey, the internet is a rough and tumble place. If one can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Mostly I see demands for civility used as hammer to smash and dehumanize foes.

    And mostly I find the civil characteristics of a blog’s comments largely reflect the civil characteristics of the blogger.

    As examples, since you folks explicitly equate dissent regarding climate change theory to Holocaust Denial, and Creationism, and then call people deniers and dehumanize dissenters freely, what you get in return is a relatively uncivil conversation from people who arguably probably agree with 98% of your other points of view.

    Since you don’t understand all the venom, and can’t look in the mirror, what happens is you need a panel to understand it for you, decry it, and then blame it on misogyny.


  11. My question is this: are you going to bring up your own adventures in “Any bad reviews of my book are automatically a personal attack upon me and Chris”-land?

    Because that misadventure was a textbook example of the rampant Highlander Disease on the internet: All Disagreement is an Attack, There can Be Only One, Two People Enter, One Person Leaves. Even worse, some of the people who panned your book did so in a blunt fashion, using direct language.

    Finally, that devil of devils, PZ Myer dared to point out how a rather significant chunk of that book was naught more than a personal attack on him and others who don’t play the way you and Chris think they should.

    Yet since all of these people were, de facto, personally attacking you because they thought less than kindly about your book and the points it made, you and Chris had an instant method to dismiss every and any point they made, legitimate or not. Over and over you and Chris did this here, and in every media outlet that would give you time. You dismissed anyone you decided you didn’t like.

    So maybe, just maybe, you could talk about how disagreement, simple, basic, disagreement, is now uncivil and how you and Chris participated in that.

  12. gillt

    The intent in a post like this is to voice your opinion while looking impartial by asking a loaded question.

    That people are being uncivil is of course assumed, and that it is a problem in discussions is of course assumed. Whether civility outweighs accuracy, honesty and truthfulness in a discussion is of course not mentioned.

    Civility is a distraction.

  13. Marion Delgado

    Civility is sometimes important, but it’s often a by-product of being careful, which is a slightly different phenomenon.

    Debates over civility often become poisonous and uncivil themselves. The parties in a conflict don’t get to decide which of them is more civil, what level of civility is okay, etc. It’s more transactional than that. Outsiders looking in should be scrutinized heavily for partisanship.

    I’ve become gradually more civil over the years for two reasons: I ignore provocative trolls, and I don’t want to give too much ground for making the messenger or medium trump the facts and the message.

    I would also say predictability is a much greater virtue than civility per se: some people who do nothing with the online part of their daily activities but spam and paste things that are provocative trolling or just insulting will say it’s uncivil to point that out: if you consistently do just that and move on, they won’t succeed in demonizing you with anyone but the faithful.

    The last time I was called uncivil on the internets was when I pointed out the complete intellectual bankruptcy, incompetence, and dishonesty of Keith Kloor of Audubon magazine. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes, but out of context, I didn’t look good. However, subsequently, I’ve sort of been vindicated, because the things I pointed out have stayed near the forefront when people dealt with Kloor. He’s clearly being lumped in with Fred Hiatt and George Will these days.

    So another point is that going beyond what someone’s labeled civility can be a choice, as well, and sometimes the right choice.

    I would say don’t let yourself do things too emotionally, don’t commit logical or argumentative fallacies, and don’t waste time with invective.

  14. Marion Delgado

    One more thing: civility is as civility does. Can anyone think of another blogger to match Lubos Motl or Joe Cambria for defining uncivil? I think in the US at least the Righties sweep the table.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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