Democratisation or just plain nastiness?

BECK ELEVEN
Last updated 05:00 08/09/2012
Online abuse
Fairfax NZ
FOR AND AGAINST: Social media allows us to engage with, avoid or completely block debate, experts say.

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Spend a little time online and you're likely to encounter a spat. Not a debate in which both sides are explored and new views formed, but a scrappy back-and-forth which often devolves into vitriol.

Blame is laid on the internet - a medium which has changed the concept of communication beyond recognition.

However, the worldwide web provides a tool to seek and learn more about any given topic while also giving users the power to cosset themselves, reading bloggers whose views they share and blocking people with whom they disagree.

On Twitter, you can choose to be named or anonymous.

Its fast-flowing stream of consciousness allows a thought that has only briefly been in existence to be condensed into 140 characters and launched on the prevailing tide.

Last week when the emotive Marriage Equality and Alcohol Reform bills were read in Parliament, opinions zinged back and forth. Diplomacy was sometimes seen.

One user tweeted: "Apologies. I sometimes wonder why we bother arguing over Twitter. It's so frustrating."

Its recipient replied: "It is pretty pointless, especially when it comes to subjects based on complicated academic research."

And then it was gone.

If views or arguments gain enough traction they become news.

Last month, documentary producer Barbara Sumner Burstyn wrote on her Facebook page: "Oh, so fallen soldier Jacinda Baker liked boxing and baking - did they forget she also liked invading countries we are not at war with, killing innocent people and had no moral compass."

The fallout was swift, escalating into death threats that needed police intervention.

When Kim Dotcom joined Twitter he quickly picked up 132,000 followers. Last week he fell foul of them after tweeting a list of rape "jokes".

Kiwi journalist Duncan Greive wrote a disparaging review of hip-hop group Home Brew Crew, which blocked his Twitter account as a result.

One of the most recent high-profile stories involving online arguments followed media personality Charlotte Dawson attempting to take her own life following abuse from Twitter users.

Australian columnist Catherine Deveny wrote an opinion piece on the subject of these online "trolls" - somewhat diplomatically calling Twitter the "democratisation of information".

Human nature means opinions are divided on any topic but the (mostly anonymous) comments underneath an online news story or comment piece quickly descend into scrappy, illogical insults with people railing against the news, the messenger and each other.

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Social media means mass protest marches of previous decades are now easier to organise but accusations of apathy may be a result of people using online petitions and Twitter hashtags as an alternative.

Canterbury University marketing senior lecturer Ekant Veer has been researching the way people now form relationships on social media.

"Social media has not necessarily meant we are more lonely, but that we engage with physical and virtual relationships in a more fluid way," he says. 

"It used to be that you would have to engage with the person in front of you -  and many still believe this - but now you engage with who you want to, regardless of their physical presence.

"I see this as different, rather than a decline. But traditionalists will see this as a destruction of society.

"It's all about perspective."

Mr Veer's research is anecdotal and uses 30 "heavy users" who spend more than two hours a day on social media or online gaming.

"Feeling comfortable or confident in conflict depends on the nature of people. We've got kids who've had mobile phones since the age of 10 or 11 and it is second nature to communicate through text, tweet or Facebook. They have issues with being in conflict, especially in a face-to-face situation.

"If you are online and someone says

something to you, you can walk away and think of a witty comeback.

"You can do this with Facebook, text and Twitter, but when you are face-to-face and haven't had time to think, people struggle.

"People haven't had the chance to practise these skills. It's not a breakdown but it is a change in how people perceive their personal relationships."

He says social media users tell him they often feel more comfortable sharing secrets online than with parents or close friends.

"The traditional notion that you can trust someone you can see is different now."

Mr Veer's research suggests that people who use social media as their primary means of communication tend to struggle with face-to-face communication - and have the potential to be introverted or withdraw from conflict altogether.

"Online, they can be forthright or aggressive because they have time to put it together, but sometimes it's like a playground fight with meaningless things along the lines of ‘my Dad is bigger than your Dad'."

Spats may also take the form of passive aggression, where people write pointed comments but will not name their target.

"You see things like: ‘I'm not going to name names but someone's been a real bitch recently'.

"Online you feel more protected. You can get your emotions out and vent - even if you anonymise it slightly - it lets the person feel more in control.

"They might feel out of control because someone has said something horrible about them but they regain some of that control and power through social media updates.

"People use it for a bit of attention-seeking as well."

The ability to block rather than get involved does not translate to lessons in long-term relationships, he says.

"The real world doesn't work like that. If your husband or wife does something that upsets you terribly, you can't just walk away and not speak to them for 10 years. That will degrade to nothing.

"I can logically assume that someone who just blocks someone will be the type of person to put their head in the sand in real life because they haven't learned to deal with conflict resolution."

However, some still see debate as a sport.

Christopher Bishop, president of the New Zealand schools debating council, says a dinner table populated by friends quickly becomes a noisy affair with point-scoring all round.

His mother and father were debaters and he joined a team at Hutt International Boys' School, aged 13.

Now 28, he says the subjects he took at school - history, economics and English - were conducive to debate.

"I liked language and I liked arguing," he says.

"If you can argue about current affairs and politics, you'll enjoy debating. I can't remember a time when I wasn't in that world.

"Debaters are able to logically organise their ideas in a way that helps explain things better.

"I don't think the fundamentals of arguing have changed with Twitter and Facebook, just the mechanism. Good argumentation is good argumentation if you are reasoned, cogent, reasonable and relevant."

Auckland psychologist Sara Chatwin says face-to-face confrontation allows people to take visual clues from facial expression and the tone of voice.

"There is a degree of honesty when you face off with someone. You go back and forth and form a dialogue. Social media tends to form more of a monologue.

"With Facebook, for instance, the opinion remains at the top, it doesn't mould and reform and change with the debate. It is still there and it becomes scrappy.

"I am in the field of personal relationships and I speak to people who want to be in them. Social media has not helped. It is essential to learn face-to-face resolution."

She often hears people talking about misinterpretation of text and messaging when meaning and tone become lost in translation.

"It's weirded things out for a lot of people. It makes everything so impersonal, it's an easy way to pass the buck, be nasty or ignore people. It can be tricky and deceptive. In some senses it makes avoidance easy. We have become quite boxed-in and limited.

"Social media has so many benefits but we really are missing out on important meaningful conversation."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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