Monday, April 21, 2008

Virtual spaces: loving our neighbour in web discussion

A guest post by Michael Paget
I've been reading a lot of blogs recently. I'm not a blogger. I don't have the confidence of my opinions, or the brevity of expression, to put my thoughts in the public space. Of course, there are benefits to being a passive observer, with all that entails about 20-20 (in/hind)sight. Recently, I've been passively observing some online disagreements about creation science, on a variety of blogs and discussion forums. And it's left me wondering: what is the shape of love for the weaker brother or sister in online debate? I'm going to argue that it has more to do with more than just how we debate, but also whether we should debate at all.

In the 1960s, Edward Hall developed a spatial theory of relationships, culture and communication. He proposed 4 spaces which we use to develop personality, culture and communication. Public (12 ft +), social (4-12 ft), personal (18" - 4 ft) and intimate (0 - 18").

Some kinds of communication are better suited to one space than another. The space described by web forums is a kind of public space which is de-personalised by the absence of face-to-face contact. When we dialogue online, we express ourselves not only publicly, but also without the benefit of being confronted with each other's humanity. The stakes are heightened, because our discussion is exposed, rather than intimate. But the normal factors of interpersonal contact which provide restraint, especially in the intensity of a theological discussion, are absent.

At the same time, some people are more competent in one space than another. I have a friend whose writing is just marvellous. He is warm, witty and conversational. Yet in person, he is awkward, uncomfortable, almost fractious. I have no idea how he relates intimately. A great many people find it extremely hard to function well in the public, unrestrained, de-personalised and semi-anonymous context of the web. The internet is in many ways a great blessing; however, it is also a highly unusual environment, which places new and unfamiliar strains on relational behaviour.

I suspect that the social context - in particular, the unavoidably human and personal presence of the Other - in which we, as humans, are designed to operate, is particularly important for some people. Some of our brothers and sisters - some of us - simply do not function well in the online space. And I suspect that the proportion of us who are affected adversely by this environment is much higher than we will readily admit. Apart from the regulative pressure of true sociality, we present as far less socially capable, generous or gentle than we are in our more frequented 'spaces'.

A new application of care for weaker brethren may be called for. We need to recognise that 'weakness' is spatially dependent. Perhaps, then, we would do well to consider when and how we introduce certain issues, or engage with certain people, online. More discussion boards would be password-accessible only. Fewer blogs would allow anonymous commenting. In effect, we would only be doing to discussion what we already do to films and TV - restrict it to those able to process and engage healthily.


Paul said...

Thank you for the insights, Michael. There is much I will take from this.

Can you say anything about the difference in the manner that men and women interact on blogs and discussion forums? It seems to me that through this medium men become more insensitive to the other's feelings and sense of dignity than women do. Women act more how they would in social, personal and intimate settings than men do.