In the great state of Arizona, a new bill  may limit online behavior extremes – or else. One of my students said, in response to the suggestion that we “talk about our various styles of writing in different settings” offered: “I’m much freer online. Because I know that tomorrow I can delete my comment if I don’t like it.”
I shared with the class that my own approach is somewhat different: If I make a verbal blunder with others in the same room, that’s bad enough. But if it’s out in cyberspace where conceivably there are countless spectators, readers, skimmers – all the worse. I can’t recant, not fully. The effect on the collective nervous systems is already there.
These are not easy situations, and they require ongoing discernment. As we sit and stare and must process increasingly large blocks of information beaming at us without our even blinking, I wonder about the Venn diagram of private and public information, and another one -- let’s call it your view and my view. Is there common ground possible when our blunt truths collide? I teach argumentation among other writing processes and hope so.
Yet I wonder about a medium that holds us so tightly captive, unable to move our bodies even imperceptibly as our minds must stretch into vast and vaster realms. What are our limits – of empathy? Of kindness? Humans build rapport through breathing, blinking, synchronization of posture. In cyberspace? Sorry. I’m gonna log off and walk away if you tick me off.
Today’s writing tools are not as multisensory as mammals might need, so very spare and two-dimensional, audio knobs notwithstanding. In the animal kingdom, there are cues galore for confrontation, and backing off or advancing or teaming up are supported by instinct. Even the sense of sight is challenged online -- our communication tools are shrinking to smaller and smaller size, even as our imaginations are taxed to the max: overload .
Sometimes the influx of technology offers a tradeoff. Some of my students are showing me scholarly articles on screens the size of candy bars. I try not to get irritated at the point size and my inability to visualize the full journal page, as I could like: I’m very proud of them. I may be literally farsighted – and therefore hold the candy bar at arm’s length to see it -- but I lack steady vision on what all this progress means for human relations.
Sometimes progress means: duck
Not long ago I got mired in the middle of an online dispute. I attempted to be the mediator. In that, perhaps I’m braver online than in person. Or so I thought. A few hours later, when I returned to the computer, I noticed too much adrenaline as I started to type – heart racing, sweaty palms. For heaven’s sake, I’m a writer. The computer is a tool. I can’t afford to become afraid of the tool. These projectiles are just words. They are not even being thrust by people in the same room. I’ve heard that some research has shown that a teacher simply saying “take out a pen and a piece of paper” may induce palpitation in some, even many. But at least in the rustle of chairs and restless exhalations, one can suffer in community during a test and breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes we exert in irritation and screen rage – in e-mail, on listservs -- what we lose in intimacy.
Sometimes progress means: back off
A high-profile Facebook friend of mine (with thousands of friends) got very upset with what I call “screen rage” recently. She indicated that too many posters are negative. I think that rage and cynicism is sometimes the voice of our isolation, our helplessness. Too often, our anger seeps through our fingers; we can’t help ourselves.
Sometimes progress feels like déjà vu…
In one of my first office jobs, I witnessed escalating tension between a pregnant co-worker and her supervisor. The dam broke the day the co-worker tossed an in-file full of papers in her boss’s direction. I grew up with two feuding older sisters but never thought I’d see that kind of thing in the workplace. The supervisor laughed, papers were gathered up and life went on “as usual.”
I would never pick up the whole box of computer stuff on my desk, wires and all, and toss it in response to an aggravation, but I’m not sure it’s entirely healthy to spend so much time stressing  with this colorful rectangle and, to quote my students, “sucking it up.”
Sometimes progress means: merge into the high speed lane …
but keep your eyes on the road and observe all rules. I was introduced to the word “Netiquette” as a former listserv manager, and I thought life would be easy thereafter. Everyone knew the rules, right? But the hardest thing was the fundamental rift between “I say what I want – tough if you don’t want to read it” and “There’s a human being at the other end of this communications train — think of that person.” Any time we post, that is the dilemma. Hit the accelerator; hit the brake.
And although I have not yet perfected my own imperfect taxonomy of posting patterns, these are some of the most common commenting styles I have observed in blog comments, listservs, and remarks after a news story. I’m sure I’ve left some categories out, so feel free to add some.
This is an enthusiastic response by a colleague or someone you would not mind as one. Yes, sometimes one can almost tell the writer asked at least one friend: “please, old buddy, will you write on my behalf?” If you are going to wax eloquent, perhaps the recipient of this favor can return it some time.
Defined as: a posted comment that has little to nothing to do with the original topic… it seems to have floated down from another planet, not upward from e-arth. Possibly see also: e-lliptical. Does anyone ever see his/her own eccentricities? Probably not. Even those self-described as “quirky” miss their own foibles. On the other hand, an eccentric response is better than zero responses, which points back to the author – right or wrong – as “loser.”
Short and snappy reigns on the net. Ornate may suit the Brontë sisters, but in the novel world of cyberspace, the only taboo is a steady stream of compound-complex sentences. Please forgive me if I sound like I’m picking on your field. Example: Although some might venture to criticize me for my shameless and/or even peculiar verbosity, I nonetheless feel compelled to enter this spirited discussion here with my erudite colleagues, and I must incorporate the best of my experiences and perspective on higher education…
4. e-ven and odd
Although pleasant on the surface, do watch out as you read someone who begins on even keel and then aims for the jugular. Maybe the poster has an evil twin. This commenter may begin by laying it on quite thick; however, this may be just be to induce a gentle trance in the writer — or, less cynically, to build common ground. A sudden zap may be next, so beware.
What’s wrong with a little self-promotion? Yes, that’s right: a little self-promotion. Repetition works in marketing, or so they say. They say. So plug your book, article, side business, college, or blog … whatever. Never post a comment without selling yourself. Tedious, though.
This is a quality to strive for, and there are such posts in almost every discussion unless the others listed here dominate the dynamic, which they often do.
When you start seeing the same type of comment over and over, perhaps it’s the beginning of one. Or perhaps it’s already too late, and there’s no stopping it. It’s endemic to the medium and social behavior, after all. Contagion.
This is rare in cyberspace and possesses resonance.
If a comment is typed, edited, reflected upon, proofread, and even left for an hour to marinate -- but ends up deleted by the writer due to some second or third thought – will a ripple of communication still reverberate somewhere in the universe? Maybe not. Or maybe the lords of cyberspace struck down his/her vanity. At least the writer got needed finger exercise.
This type of comment adds grace and eloquence to the discussion.
Think: Bull -- the animal, not the other kind. Although, if the shoe fits… No matter what the topic, this poster sees red. And redder. And is not happy, paradoxically, until the whole queue of readers has eyes and veins bulging and hearts pounding and is digging into the ground with angry hooves, ready to charge. If you prefer a less rustic image, think: blasting imaginary horns one after in a traffic jam, when there really is nowhere else to go. It’s the electronic equivalent of road rage.
This commenter adds a brushstroke of humor or whimsy to a discussion. Real names are rarely used, so there is no way to compliment the person.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the keyboard can be meaner (and faster).
The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan  observed.
A person of self-awareness might remember to utilize the speed and flexibility of the medium with care. We have no age limit or tests for competence on the web, but just as no one wants to encounter a driver unable or unwilling to avoid a collision or who can’t guide the steering wheel to stay on the road, basic etiquette has a place in cyberspace. A friend in the helping professions says she believes that people feel they are alone in front of their screens when, in reality, they are tapped into a far-reaching community. A little kindness in what are public places might count.
Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .