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Drama on the Internet: Is it Making Us Stupid?

What ever happened to civility?

Commenting gets us attention. And Facebook and Gchat and email itself challenge us to comment all the time. Like Diane’s photo of a rose? Comment and click “like.” Disagree with someone’s politics or stance? The comment button is right there. With luck, you’re thinking before you click but if you ever take a look at some of the comments posted out there on the Internet, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that. Tragedies —anything that hints of polarization like the New York City murder of two children allegedly by their nanny, a struggling mother who worked for a mother who didn’t have to—bring the commentators out, usually anonymous, in droves. Of course, there are expressions of sympathy but, unfortunately, much of which is posted is nasty and self-aggrandizing —not to mention lacking in both empathy and civility. Are adults modeling “drama” for their children?

It goes without saying the tenor of politics rarely rises above drama these days, and neither does television coverage which adds some drama of its own. With televisions all over the country turned on 24/7, drama publicizes goods and services, books and magazines, and movies too. Civility doesn’t promote, you know. No wonder kids are paying attention.

So, are we witnessing the end of civility? The Internet and all of its spawn have been touted as the great agents of democratization. You no longer have to write and mail a letter to the editor and pray to the heavens that it will be published; no, you can click “comment” and “send” and tell Maureen Dowd or whomever you choose exactly what you think, in whatever language and terms you feel are justified unless, of course, there’s actually a lag and a human being checking for “appropriateness.” Many people think this is a good thing, a democratic and equalizing thing. I don’t. I think the automatic responsiveness of “click here,” the easy way we can type without thinking and hit “send’—which is appallingly evident among the young who initiate breakups in this way —is true of some adults as well.

Young people apply for jobs on the Internet, meet adults on interviews, and never hear another word. Electronic rejection is easy enough but, in the absence of civility, no longer required. Applicants are actually grateful, even surprised, if someone bothers to email “We hired someone else.”

Most important, recent research suggests that the act of “commenting” as we know it actually affects how we read and react to news. Ashley A. Anderson, Dominique Brossard, and others conducted a study just published that looked at the effect comments had on readers’ opinions, specifically if the comments were either civil or incivil in nature. (An example of an incivil comment was calling a reader who disagreed with the piece “an idiot.”) The blog post which was about nanotechnology was itself neutral, with both pros and cons. The experiment showed, however, that when participants were exposed to incivil comments, they tended to have a much more polarized take on the article.

The implications are pretty scary. It’s already been argued that technology induces shallow thinking and quick reading; will it also stunt our ability to think in a more basic way, drowning real thought in reactivity?

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Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd, "The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics," paper presented at the Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society (September 22, 2011)

Ashley A. Anderson, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenox, and Peter Ladwig, “ Crude Comments and Concern: Online Incivility’s Effect on Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technology,”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.…