Our own worst enemies

Language is a defining feature of people. We are unique in Nature in being able to turn physical objects and abstract concepts into words and thus share ideas1. The Internet provides our innate propensity for communication with means to engage in social interaction beyond the constraints of time and space, allowing us to engage in synchronous or asynchronous discussions that would be inconceivable otherwise.

The potential of this type of communication for education is already evident. Teachers and students had embraced blogs, online chats, fora and social networks to share and disseminate commonly interesting knowledge.

As a learner – and who isn’t? – blogging in particular has been instrumental in my own learning, which is continuously being constructed, modelled and re-modelled by reflecting on the social interaction provided by blogs such as this one and then feeding the newly constructed knowledge into further interaction, enabling me to learn in a divergent manner by providing the stimulus that allows me to pursue new ideas and explore new threads in a creative way2.

So far, so good. But there are some problems. Firstly, linguistic communication relies on a plethora of visual and non-verbal cues and clues – a slight change in intonation or the raising of an eyebrow – that are simply absent from computer mediated communication.

These can be overcome by using emoticons and such like but, if – like me – you don’t populate your blog posts, tweets or comment contributions with smilies and LOLs, there is always the constant risk of misinterpretation.

Secondly, we employ social conventions when interacting online that differ widely from ordinary social conventions and to which, shockingly, we seem to be growing accustomed. On the internet – as the old adage goes – nobody knows you’re a dog but it also allows everyone to adopt a different persona.

Anonymity is arguably one of the Internet’s main strengths and freedom of speech is one of our most revered rights, and quite right too. However, the distancing effect of anonymity allows many to debase online discussion and debate by emboldening them to interact with others in such a way that would be very unlikely in real life, as is perfectly illustrated in this video:

Rudeness has become an inherent feature of online discussion. This is a shame. The ability to explore and discuss topics in a dialectic manner, in which views are challenged constructively, is being sapped away from discussion boards, online newspaper comments threads and blogs by rude people, often though not always with silly pseudonyms, who say things online they would not dare say to your face.

I find it very peculiar we should let behaviour go unchallenged online that would not be tolerated otherwise. I can’t imagine any of them being that rude to you face-to-face or even over the phone. They’re probably really nice people in person.

There is no need for any of this. There is an alternative to the current, ever less acceptable model. We need to create an environment that fosters exploratory talk, in which participants challenge the opinions of others with their own ideas and opinions. An environment that stimulates higher order processes, such as self-reflection, knowledge application, decision making, criticism and revision of concepts and solutions3.

We don’t need thoughtless belittling, rudeness, ridiculing and abuse. We ought to know better. No wonder then that schools feel so uneasy about the social Internet, if the very people our students look up to aren’t able to provide them with appropriate models of behaviour. We are our own worst enemies.

Many thanks to Bisgraphic for the photograph.

  1. Pinker, S. (1999) Words and Rules. London: Phoenix
  2. Atherton, J. S. (2005) Learning and Teaching: Convergent and Divergent Learning
  3. Anderson, T. and Rourke, L. (2002) Using Web-Based, Group Communication Systems to Support Case Study Learning at a Distance. In The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 3, No 2


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  1. Excellent commentary, Jose’. I like that you mention how much you’ve learned by blogging. Perhaps we bloggers can help lead the way toward better online communication.

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