Online Civility and Its (Muppethugging) Discontents


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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)?

- 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?

  • 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?)

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