Guest post by Andrea Weckerle
On January 20, 2009, I was one of the millions of viewers of U.S. President Barack Obama's inaugural address. His address was serious yet hopeful, emphasizing all citizens' responsibility to meet the challenges facing the nation and the global community:
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
I was heartened by the inaugural address, not because of party affiliation, but because of President Obama's introduction of the theme of responsibility, which, interpreted broadly, presents an opportunity for each individual to move purposefully towards a positive and productive goal.
As someone who arguably spends as much time in the online space as in the terrestrial, offline environment, I'm particularly interested in responsibility as it pertains to the online behavior of heavily-engaged or vocal individuals. This interest actually started nearly three years ago when I came across a discussion of the Online Disinhibition Effect, defined as:
“It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly.Researchers call this the ‘disinhibition effect.' It's a double-edged sword.”
Since then I've had numerous talks with leaders in the online space, asking whether they felt there had been an increase or decrease in inappropriate or intentionally hurtful behavior. The answers were usually mixed, meaning that while many respondents felt, as do I, that as more people go online and participate both professionally and socially, their ability to interact productively increases, but that we have also witnessed a new depth of the most negative behavior.
For example, there is the unfortunate existence of snark, which, while not unique to the online world, is easy to engage in and propagate in a 24/7 environment. In his newly published book Snark, David Denby describes it in the following way:
“What is snark? You recognize it when you see it — a tone of teasing, snide, undermining abuse, nasty and knowing, that is spreading like pinkeye through the media and threatening to take over how Americans converse with each other and what they can count on as true. Snark attempts to steal someone's mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness.”
So while snark and other similar forms of communication tend to inhibit or shut down open communication, what might be considered responsible online behavior? Reasonable people can differ on the exact definition, but perhaps a good starting point for discussion is the idea that if an overarching goal of discourse in civilized society is the free exchange of ideas, then the creation of an environment where everyone's ideas are evaluated based on their strength and value – and everyone feels comfortable expressing them in a rational manner – should be an overarching goal.
What are the factors or elements you consider necessary for the existence of a robust system where the free exchange of ideas is fostered and supported?
Andrea Weckerle is an entrepreneur with a background in law and communications.