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On Immoderate Speech

In my last post, I mentioned GamerGate, and tried to say some balanced things. A few people complained that I needed more evidence for one of my statements (and they’re right—I need to do more research), but most people were incredibly polite in their responses. I really appreciate that.

In the blog comments, a friend from grad school decided I had lost my mind, and let me know. That’s OK—we’ve been friends for over 25 years, and he’s a good guy to argue with over interesting things. I politely told him that I disagree, and that I have data to prove it. He is sticking to his view. I’m fine with that—we’ll agree to disagree.

After that, some folks who care about GamerGate attacked my friend in the blog comments. My friend was immoderate in his tone. Some of the replies were polite requests for facts. Others were insults with less substance behind them, and the intensity of the comments escalated. It was, uh, interesting to watch….

One of the fundamental disagreements on the Internet today is about the role of immoderate speech. Is it OK to call someone a rude name or use obscene language? Are the rules different if the person is a public figure?

There’s actually, believe it or not, a correct answer to this question: It depends on where you are on the internet. The internet is not one place. Social norms are local. What it’s OK to say on 4chan or 8chan is not OK to say on your work mailing list or on comments on a mainstream news site.

Social norms differ even on different parts of the same site. One team of students in my Design of Online Communities class this term studied Shirley Curry’s YouTube Channel. Shirley is a 79-year-old grandmother who plays Skyrim, and posts her unedited gaming streams. My students found that everyone is extremely polite on Shirley’s channel. The social norms are different on her channel than on the channels of anyone else streaming the same game.

None of this is new. I wrote about how social norms differ by site in the 1990s. But one new challenge for social norms of online interaction is Twitter. What neighborhood is Twitter in? It’s in all of them and none of them. What social norms apply? No one knows. And sometimes people who think they are interacting in a Shirley-like world end up in a conversation with people who think they are on 4chan. Oh dear. Neither side leaves that encounter happy. And that’s why a lot of online conflict starts on Twitter, and on other sites that don’t have clear social norms.

Regarding what sort of neighborhood this blog represents: I’ll post (almost) any comment, but I’d appreciate it if folks would keep things more Shirley-like. I don’t mind a bit of immoderate speech now and then. But the problem is that when you crank up the intensity, a significant group of people stop listening. Calm, polite discourse might actually influence people—we all might learn something.

  1. May 1, 2016 at 9:55 am

    It seems important to mention the tactic of sea-lioning here, pretending to be civil and asking a flood of pestering questions. It has the surface appearance of calm, polite discourse but has the intended effect of being a harassment tactic. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/sea-lioning

    • The Colour Of Heartache
      May 1, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      Accusations of sea-lioning are also way way way too easily abused as a silencing tactic. After all, the only difference between sea-lioning and legitimate civil debate is the motivations of the alleged sea-lion.

      • May 2, 2016 at 11:32 am

        Thanks Heartache for all the great comments! The tricky thing I think is how you tell the difference between sea lioning and ‘gee a lot of people feel strongly about this issue.’ I think it’s inappropriate if an organized group deliberately says, ‘hey, let’s have all 10k of us tell this person they’re wrong.’ But if 10k people spontaneously say, ‘wow I want to speak up on this important issue’…. Well the impact on the receiver is the same, right? So it’s complicated.

      • The Colour Of Heartache
        May 4, 2016 at 11:04 am

        You’re welcome 🙂

        Sorry this reply’s so long.

        I think the name for 10K people – coordinated or independent – is dogpiling. Sealioning is more like 1 person with 100 seemingly polite questions – but with a secret intent to pester.

        But names are just words. Under any name the point you raise is valid.

        I have no idea what can be done about flash-events. A journalist writes an article, lets say it’s racist, and 10K people tweet about it. However I think that for longer lasting events like Gamergate the answer is actually quite simple.

        This is just my lay-man’s opinion, but I think that any sort of event that lasts a long time will through human nature result in a small number of central figures. If group feel that the voices of the central figures are heard by the people who matter the group feel their voice is heard. This will decrease anger, and redirect energy towards supporting their central figures when the next debate comes.

        What’s needed is updated social norms that will help identify who’s an upcoming central figure, and give socially understood scripts for how and where they go to be heard, in a way that their group can publicly see that their central figure is being heard.

        I reckon Gamergate would have been much calmer if, say, Oliver Campbell and Ben Kuchera were put on a debate stage with widespread impartial coverage. Arguably there wouldn’t have been a Gamergate in the first place if pieces like KiteTales’ video “More than a Damsel” made it to the front page of Kotaku/Polygon/Rock Paper Shotgun with commentary.

  2. The Colour Of Heartache
    May 1, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Since you brought up differing social norms on different websites. One of the big questions Twitter is facing is if it’s public or private.

    Twitter unambiguously sells itself as a public space, one of it’s biggest selling point is that you can directly send messages to celebrities. However when someone posts something like “randos in my mentions” it gives the impression that they think of twitter as a private space. Something akin to Facebook or myspace where you talk only with people you know or sorta-know. Rather than like reddit or this comment box, where strangers talk about a topic.

    I think part (but only a small part) of the tension between proGG and anitGG can be explained by these differing social norms. proGG think of a hashtag as a public space, where it’s appropriate, even encouraged, to debate with the other people there. As though it were a chan or reddit. AntiGG think of twitter as more private, and so they see GG as kicking down the door and invading their private space because they replied to a post using the hashtag.

  3. May 4, 2016 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for the thoughts!

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