We’re rude and crass and unthinking on the Internet for the same reason it’s easier to blow up people when you’re piloting a drone from 6,000 miles away. Psychologists call it “moral disengagement.” The further removed we are from the consequences of our actions, the easier it is to emotionally separate ourselves from our own behavior. Distance makes the heart grow colder.
That’s one reason the Internet is filled with so much bad behavior. We see it on blogs, where vicious comments are posted by cowards who hide behind the cloak of anonymity. We see it, particularly among young people, in social media like Facebook and MySpace, where cyberbullying has had tragic consequences. And we see it in casual e-mails
There are other reasons for bad behavior online. It’s a convenient outlet. We get frustrated easily these days, and if an e-mail with the slightest provocation shows up at the wrong time, we unleash that frustration.
Is there a big social problem with the way we’re interacting with each other online? Is there a need for a new era of Internet etiquette - or “ netiquette ,” as it is sometimes called? Yes, and yes. The current level of anger and hostility online is another rip, and a big one, in our social fabric. Of course, it also mirrors much of what goes on the world at large, particularly politics and media. The name-calling, the histrionics, the insults that are part of our cable-TV culture find their daily analogues in the way we communicate online.
Can this change? While there doesn’t seem a lot of reason for optimism, there is no doubt that broad behavioral and social change is possible. It has happened before. People who come back from China almost universally report, with horror, that people there routinely spit on the street. But what they forget, or don’t know, is that in America (and in hypercivilized England), people used to spit on the street all the time, up through the beginning of the 20th century. All those spittoons bought in antique shops and now used for clever contemporary purposes once had a far more mucousy intent.
These social changes happen gradually. They are driven by social pressure and by a desire to identify with a higher social class. Pejorative racial and ethnic epithets used to be commonplace, in social environments and the workplace. The same with inappropriate sexual comments, as anyone who watches Mad Men is well aware of. Today, if you spit or sound like Archie Bunker, it’s bad for your personal brand.
That’s one way for Internet etiquette to become a new kind of normative activity - through the ostracism that comes from exhibiting embarrassing bad behavior that redounds negatively to your personal brand. In that way, Facebook, Twitter and other public and quasi-public platforms actually can be useful. They serve as social amplifiers that expose bad actors to their personal networks — the very group that’s most important to their reputations.
There’s also a role for technology in enforcing better behavior. Specifically, why not use technology to implement some of the principles of behavioral economics? By understanding how the brain operates, we can then establish incentives to change behavior. It’s called the “nudge” theory.
For example, imagine a “Write and Save” feature as part of an e-mail platform. You could opt into the feature, which would hold your e-mails for a period of time that you choose before they are released. That would give you time to cool off, reflect and reconsider. It could even be designed with filters — so any e-mail to a specific client, or your boss, would automatically activate Write and Save.
Another idea would be to develop an auto-flag system that would deliver a pop-up message whenever you use an expletive. (Call it South Park tech.) It’s the same principle: giving you a chance to fight the Internet quick-send reflex, to break the synapse between outraged brain and complaint fingers.
Technology is capable of bringing out the best and the worst in us. Much of the ecosystem around e-mail — its immediacy, its instant gratification, its role as an outlet for hostility — amplifies the worst. But as e-mail matures, as we become more aware of its ability to damage our reputation, and as social pressure mounts, I believe we can temper some of the worst that we’re seeing.
In other words, the recall feature that exists in the software, will start to move to our brains.
Adam Hanft is a marketing consultant and journalist.
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